Maybe Scream! Anxiety and the Young…

Natasha Devon, the Government’s ex Mental Health ‘Tsar’ said recently that: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health… Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

These things are not a coincidence…

Maybe they are a coincidence; maybe they’re not. What they are, of course, is a convenient narrative, and perhaps testing and academic pressure is part of the problem but other things could be too.

In this piece Annie Murphy-Paul points to research that our ‘Smart-phones’ might be making us miserable, she concludes:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind… While it’s true that our minds seem naturally inclined to wander, our technological devices make the problem considerably worse. You’ll be happier if you focus on what you’re doing right here, right now—and that means putting your phone away whenever possible.”

That smart-phone usage has increased over the past twenty years (from 0%) and especially for younger people I could say:  “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.” In fact, it says ‘technological devices’ – maybe all computers, tablets, games etc??!!!? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Other things might add to anxiety, group work and behaviour add to teenage resentment according to an article in Education Week, maybe this sort of practice has increased over the past few years? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe anxiety is increasing because of identity politics and the “intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old“?

Maybe the whole twenty-first century skills dogma is causing anxiety? Telling children they have to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist is not exactly comforting… In a competitive world, where we are told that robots will take even middle class jobs! And they will have to compete with people who will work harder, for less, and that the halcyon days of workers’ rights might be over as bosses look to exploit their workforce

In the future, we are told, our children will have to study on and on to accrue qualifications and work until they are eighty years old and will never be able to afford a house in which to live so will be forever renting and sharing… That our kids are informed that they won’t be able to have a loving relationship that lasts a lifetime, that sugar is killing them, that antibiotics are failing to work, that airplanes will fall from the sky and people will kill them in concerts, on holiday, at football matches… 24/7 media tells them incessantly,  with more lurid headlines that vie for attention on paper and online…

Or maybe Cultural relativism stresses children out: ‘Hey, there is no truth, your opinion is equally valid to mine…’ Maybe when they have all the information in the world (mediated by large West-Coast global conglomerates) at their finger tips, ask a question and get millions of replies then that is stressful…

Maybe when many of the replies they get are sponsored but, hey, an advert is equally valid to a critical text written by an undercover journalist with a left wing axe to grind…

And, how many adverts do they see, do ‘we’ see, every day? Buy this, believe in this, you too can look like this… And ads pop up, pop up, pop up, stop you reading the clickbait, clickbait, clickbait and pop up, pop up, pop up…

And social media where all your friends are doing better than you, looking better than you, having more fun than you, exist in sunnier days than you…

And classrooms where all the ‘short term attention spans’ are catered for, speed up, be fast, lots of busy activities, they can’t concentrate for long so don’t help them learn to…

And parents who, terrified that every adult left alone with their child is a paedophile, so insist on accompanying their children every step of the way, whilst informing them… “When I was your age I was out in the fields all day, playing on my own or with mates and I was never touched up by a TV personality, priest or politician, though I was offered sweets once by a retired Scout Master…”

And parents whose work/life balance is so askew that they are constantly on call to work, knowing a slip up or two might mean the sack, must reply to this email, oh and this one, and this text, sorry love can’t play today…

AND that BREXIT is a ‘high-risk bet for our children

“Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a deep breath, and think – if it’s true that anxiety is on the increase in the young, maybe some things are a coincidence and somethings may not be, however there are things over which we have power to do something about in our classrooms and in our homes today, but will we? Or do we want the narrative to affirm our already held beliefs and prejudices, after all, ‘there is no truth’…

What should we do? What can we do? What will we do?


9 thoughts on “Maybe Scream! Anxiety and the Young…

  1. Anxiety about anxiety. Truly that should make us scream.. But you’re right, where to look for answers? Technology is as much symptom as cause. And everyone has their explanatory ‘narrative’. It’s the postmodern condition. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When a crisis reaches down to the very roots of our being we have to step back and ask some simple – yet profound – questions: What makes life meaningful? And sustainable? Because make no mistake – these two go hand in hand.. In his recent power pitch for the forthcoming iPhone 7, Apple CEO Tim Cook declared that we’d wonder how ‘we’d ever lived without it’. If ever there was a statement that captured the crippling contradictions of our ‘technology driven’ yet soulless consumer capitalist society. It’s not more tech’ we need, it’s more time – quality time. So step off that Munchian bridge of existential despair and take a walk in the life-affirming woods – leaving your smartphone at home. No risk. Just the risk you might reconnect with what truly matters.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ah, yes, so I’m a typical millennial who graduated with a fistful of amazing qualifications and a tonne of suppressed anxiety. I’m sorted now and, as Steve (above) says, all it takes is going back to the question of what makes life meaningful? To do this I pulled right out of the academic and professional trajectory I’d earned from ‘being a good student’ and took ‘any job’ until I had enough savings to pull away from all structure and see what it’s like to begin from me. This has involved a switch from, frankly, seeing my body as a poor resource (a limitation) to doing what I ought, to it being the only thing that allows me to be here and do anything. Recently I interviewed one of the TEDxNorwichED speakers on this theme and shared in that some of the ways anxiety manifested itself while I was a student, before I became aware enough to notice what was happening The world is scary and isolating at the same time. One of the quickest ways to let a young person know their feelings are OK is to be open about our own.


    1. Step back and shake it up.. Sounds good to me 🙂 Except expecting education to become less ‘stressed’ (if we can only find the right approach) whilst the rest of society becomes more and more stressed is putting way too much stress on the system. If you get my drift. Why are we so stressed? Why are we so anxious? Or (as Martin suggests) is this just the narrative we like to console ourselves with when things go wrong and seem to complex to understand? It’s a fair point but I think the evidence of our deepening anxiety is clear. Your story is very powerful Leah. It’s human. I can relate to it. But individual stories and educational strategies – however illuminating they may be – have to be viewed in the wider context of the larger forces shaping our lives. What we fundamentally lack and therefore yearn for is a sense of control – that’s just human too. But increasingly we feel this is beyond us – it’s the big corporations, the state, climate change – hell, even the robots marching over the hill – that will decide our fate. This surely is why we’re so anxious. And parents are plugged into this collective anxiety more than any other social group – desperate for their kids to survive and prosper. Which is why most of them will buy into any scheme, any technology, that confers an advantage. They’ll even believe there’s something wrong with their kids that only medication can control.. Now wait a minute. I’m not saying all ‘disorders’ are misdiagnosed. But I am saying we’ve become an over-stimulated, over-medicated society. I’m also saying our testing culture speaks volumes about the political anxiety – Economic growth! Economic growth! – that’s driving the educational agenda. Scream all you like if it helps. But sooner or later you have to ask why we’re in this mess. And self-help manuals miss the bigger picture.


  3. I think that some of the things you identify here are worries that adults have, related to young people, and not that young people have themselves. My kids are not aware of the whole ’21st century skills’ debate, nor are they fussed about Brexit (they’re a bit young for that). The older one has a mobile phone, but it’s rarely charged up. Unless they read the papers or watch the news (which they don’t) then all the worries about antibiotics, terrorism, etc. aren’t really in the forefront of their minds. They don’t really understand about things like university tuition fees, the impossibly high cost of housing, or more practical concerns just yet either.

    I would suggest that the one thing that tends to cause anxiety in young people, and which can be a contributing factor in conditions such as eating disorders, is the feelings of in adequacy that overly high expectations can create (from parents as well as from government via schools). This leads to a kind of anxious perfectionism that I know I suffered from myself as a child. A constant refrain of ‘meet the standards’ and ‘pass the test’ (or fail it) feels like it must inevitably lead to anxiety. I don’t think it helps that children are surrounded by images of perfection in the media, and via celebrity culture, either. I suspect that there are also some issues around the loss of extended family, the diminution in religious belief and the answers that faith can bring for some people, and to do with how ‘busy’ and ‘on’ our culture seems to be all the time. I didn’t see the same kinds of anxiety that I see here, when we lived in Portugal, where faith, family, and making time for long lunches are still far more prevalent.


    1. Interesting comparison with Portugal. Poorer materially but richer in other ways perhaps. Interesting about your kids not watching/reading the news too – that does make me anxious! Is that because they’re too distracted by other (social/games) media? Or because they simply don’t care what’s going on in the world – too much occupying their minds as it is? I’m sure everyone can relate to the ‘busy’ and ‘on’ point – well put. But that does underline my general point – it doesn’t have to be this way. If we want to change things and find better balance/quality of life we have to take control of the political/economic systems that are robbing us of that..


    2. When adults don’t feel they have control over their own lives they will worry for themselves and worry even more for the young people they are trying to ‘guide’ into society. Young people pick up on this worry, even if they don’t know all the reasons for it. When my dad was out of work for a really long time, and I was and ‘adult’ just out of uni, he and I were walking and he was making clear how messed up the world is (this is wrong, that is wrong, no one with power cares etc) and I asked him if he would say those things if I was his two year old girl. It was funny how that, just that, sparked his hope again. He’s in his dream job now and one thing I know is he wouldn’t have got that without finding hope again. If I had done what I was supposed to do according to formal ed pathways, I’d not have been at home to see what was happening – I’d have been in some metropolis living the ‘high life’ (from the glimpse I had of it: amazing how many white colour professionals take drugs… that was not the impression I had of drug taking when we were taught it in school). Family and community are more important that I thought they were as a result of school being packaged as a way to ‘get ahead’ and ‘get out’ of that community, rather than to be more a part of it and bring more life to it.


      1. Stepping back to view the ‘bigger picture’ again I think every age has been ‘anxious’. But probably what’s unique about ours is there are (media) ‘mirrors’ everywhere. We can not escape them – unless we completely switch off. And the effect of this is amplification. Anxiety feeding off anxiety. Martin’s Munch image is very apt. But I’m also reminded the classic Peter Finch scene in Network


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