Opinion: Going deeper than ‘how are you?’ with youth mental health

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mental health
Noel Lee/The Occidental

Content warning: This article mentions statistics of suicide.

“You stretch your arms when clothes come, and you open your mouth when food is delivered,” is a saying in China that describes resourceful privileges my generation enjoys.

While the amount of sincerity in the common American phrase of “How are you doing?” might be overrated, this way of greeting is completely ignored at the dinner table of my family. My parents, who grew up witnessing China’s Age of Reform, have always told me they earned every penny that went into my college tuition with their blood, sweat and tears. The amount of trauma embedded in their success today trained them to not reveal their vulnerabilities. Psychologists today recommend parents to be curious and empathic when responding to their kids’ emotional issues, but how can one be empathetic when they have trouble acknowledging their own feelings? There are countless occasions where I tried calling my parents to seek comfort for my anxiety, but all I would get is “find a way to relax,” as if watching a movie or taking a long nap would resolve my mental issues once and for all. I am not blaming my parents for the lack of their support, but the inefficient communication fundamental to the generational gap makes it difficult to give and receive care.

It may seem like all arrows are pointing towards therapy as being the ultimate solution to addressing youth mental health, but is this really the case? Though therapy has been made more accessible through online services like Betterhelp, the industry may not be mature enough to help everyone in need. My personal experiences indicate that recognizing factors, such as cross cultural differences, is crucial to determining the outcome of the therapy session. When talking to a therapist at Emmons Wellness Center about my loneliness regarding studying in the United States as an international student, the therapist recommended that I develop a hobby, which left me puzzled for weeks. Having spent 19 years of my life in China, a country so densely populated making academic success one of the only ways to achieve social mobility, weekends were there to make sure that I do not fall behind from my peers. Instead of “developing a hobby,” I was sent to math classes and English bootcamps. Everything was designed to have a purpose. Watching TV for more than one hour was considered a crime, because I wasted one precious hour of my life on a distraction that could potentially ruin my life. The question of “When are you going to study?” has haunted me for years. Never have I thought pursuing a hobby without a purpose could be something valuable for my mental health. Not knowing my unique background, the therapist’s recommendation made me feel like I’d wasted a precious part of life. It wasn’t until I spoke with my Chinese roommate, who had a similar childhood, that I realized it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t have a hobby.

Gen-Z is faced with new challenges posed by an exacerbating mental health crisis. In 2021, 42 percent of high schools students reported that they experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness and 22 percent have seriously considered attempting suicide. While agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have helped raise awareness for youth mental health, I worry that these “strategies” create a misleading impression that youth mental illness is easy to cure.

A recent conversation I had with my friend from high school was about modern loneliness. The American singer Lauv described modern loneliness as “we are never alone, but always depressed,” which is precisely the struggle my friend and I are experiencing in college. We realized that it is easier to share happiness with the people around us, but little patience is granted to acknowledging our anxieties and insecurities. Pressing the like button on Instagram takes no more than three seconds. Comforting one’s own pain demands more energy and time. Our busy schedules left us with little time to recover from our own exhaustions, and having the capacity to genuinely care for a friend is almost a luxury. Imagine having to talk your friend through a break-up while you have two exams coming up the next day. As a result, when greeting each other, we tend to avoid acknowledging the struggles the other person is experiencing.

I am privileged because I was granted the space to unfold my feelings with a therapist, but the access to care is still limited. In addition to affordability concerns, therapy sessions are also time consuming and they are inefficient for urgent relief. I like to refer to my therapy appointments as taking out the trash, because I usually dump out a series of triggering incidents that have piled up over a period of time. By the time I went to the therapist, I could have already been traumatized for weeks. Hence, the importance of seeking immediate emotional support from friends and families cannot be undermined. However, as they may have limited emotional capacity or experience in offering mental support, getting effective help may be difficult.

Parents like mine may wonder, if their kids already have everything they did not grow up with, why aren’t they happy? But, our generation was born to deal with uncertainties that emerged under globalization, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the pandemic. Social media visualized competition and anxieties. When influencers began filming their morning routines, I began to wonder, what are we so desperately chasing after?

Different from previous generations who were granted the time to adapt to the rapid changes of our world, Gen-Z was never given the chance to manifest a “back-in-the-days” moment. My mom graduated college with a teaching certificate in English, but she’s never stepped foot in a school her entire career. She is now a senior global procurement director at a multinational company. While she figured out her path step by step, my friends and I have been making 10-year plans at a young age. Different from my mom’s legendary story, many of our “back-in-the-day” moments are about what we could have done better. Our world has become less tolerable to mistakes as we are constantly reminded that our present is determined by the past, and our future is dependent on the steps we take today.

I think “modern loneliness” is a more poetic way to explain youths’ mental health struggle today. Not only is it something new and needs to be explored further, there are also countless ways to interpret it depending on the individual’s personal experiences and cultural backgrounds. Although we don’t have the perfect strategy to resolve this issue, we need effort from ourselves, parents, external resources like therapy and inclusive school environments to prevent the condition from worsening.

Contact Renee Ye at rye@oxy.edu.

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