Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Mental Health and Politics

by Jeff Polet

Having spent roughly 30 years of my career on a college campus I can attest to many changes that took place in that time, but none has been more prominent nor alarming than the mental health crisis among our young students. If I recall correctly, my alma mater had opened its counseling center in my first year as a college student. There was one or maybe two full-time persons on staff. Of course, one might reasonably argue that colleges had been insufficiently attentive and responsive to the mental health needs of students, but both observation and available evidence coalesce around the idea that the scope of mental health alterations has both broadened and deepened in the intervening years.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association “more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem” and “almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress.” In another report we are informed that “Across the country, colleges and universities are facing a huge increase in the number of students who need mental health care, and many schools aren’t prepared to handle the growing demand. A national survey of college students in 2020 found that nearly 40 percent experienced depression. One in three reported having had anxiety, and one in seven said they’d thought about suicide in the past year.”

Why this is happening is open for interpretation, in no small part because there are likely a number of contributing causes. What are the best ways to respond will also generate a conflict of possibilities. But the depth of the crisis alarms nonetheless.

It does appear, furthermore, that there are some confounding variables. For example, people of faith seem to be less likely to suffer from mental health alterations. This report backs up my own observations that affluent white women who lean liberal in their politics are especially at risk. This chart from Pew Research is attention-getting:

Or this:

In her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us Jean Twenge argues that technology in general and cell-phone use in particular are the main drivers of these wide-spread mental health problems. She counsels parents to be much more intentional and supervisory regarding their children’s use of electronic technologies.

More importantly, mental health alterations appear to intensify when people experience themselves as having no control over their own lives and the world around them, exacerbated by a tendency to interpret things as being much worse than they actually are. Jill Filipovic rightly observed:

I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. 

The health of a society is obviously related to the health of its members. People suffering from depression and anxiety are less able to cope, less able to navigate differences and disagreements, less able to accommodate and compromise, and less able to bear unpleasantries with equanimity and grace. Our politics, in turn, will reflect the fragility and hardened inability to negotiate that marks the inner lives of many of our citizens. The mental health crisis is very much part of our political crisis.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might it be the case that secular people seem to have more mental health problems than religious people do?
  2. Why might people who are left of center suffer from more anxiety and depression than people who are right of center? What different hypotheses might you offer?
  3. How do we explain the dramatic rise in mental health alterations among young people, especially since COVID doesn’t appear to be a major factor?
  4. What sorts of therapeutic interventions might we adopt that don’t simply involve medicating?

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1 thought on “Mental Health and Politics”

  1. America is sending too many kids to college. In the postIndustrial and post family farm this level of enrollment is of vital economic importance wherever there is a college or university. On the other hand admissions standards may have dropped, the curriculums bloated with vapid degree programs, and the requirements for some degree programs somewhat remedial.

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