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The mental health crisis does not explain wokeness

Troubled or radical? Credit: Getty

March 18, 2024 - 5:00pm

Today’s mental health crisis, especially among young people, does not explain the rise of “wokeness”.

Rather, this cultural socialist belief system evolved from Left and liberal sources first, as well as bad therapeutic ideas, but owes little to society’s actual mental health.

Recently, a large-scale academic study from Finland discovered that woke individuals are more likely to be unhappy, anxious and depressed than other people. Other psychologists have likewise noticed that people on the political Left report elevated mental health problems compared to those on the Right. Jonathan Haidt and Zach Goldberg, in studying the post-2010s teen mental health crisis, find that young liberals are two or three times more likely to report mental health problems than young conservatives.

Do progressive ideas make people unhappy, or are unhappy people drawn to the cultural Left? And by extension, did the rise of wokeness cause the mental health crisis, or did the rise of mental health problems produce the Great Awokening?

A psychological perspective takes the latter stance, holding that the mental health of society has declined, giving rise to a culture built on fragility and victimhood. A sociology of emotions outlook, by contrast, argues the former view: that ideologies are the driver, switching emotions on or off to align with the ideology. In the sociological account, woke ideology comes first, prompting people to view themselves and others as victims with mental health problems. This jacks up mental illness rates.

Two recent books advance the psychological argument that mental health problems are a major force behind woke. Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy identifies permissive parenting and therapeuticisation as central to the youth mental health crisis, which in turn is fuelling political extremism. Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation points to smartphone use, hyper-parenting and social media as the culprits behind the mental health epidemic. The result, as explored by Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in the Coddling of the American Mind, is an explosion of Left-wing illiberalism on campus.

Source: FIRE 2024 College Free Speech Rankings.

The aforementioned authors are open to both psychological and sociological explanations, but they focus mainly on the former approach. Yet there is a lot of data to suggest that the driver of wokeness is actually ideological. Consider the chart above, based on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)’s 2023 survey of 55,000 American students, mainly those at the top 150 research-intensive universities. It looks at how ideology and anxiety interact to predict whether a student will be in favour of the illiberal practice of shouting down a visiting speaker.

FIRE’s massive sample of 18 to 22 year-olds reveals the size of the youth mental health crisis. Of the students polled, 68% say they are anxious and 42% say that they are depressed at least “half the time”. A whopping 37% say they are anxious “almost every day” or “always”.

Among respondents, 19% are conservative and 48% are liberal, in line with previous survey waves. Controlling for gender, year, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, race, depression, stress and grade-point average allows me to focus squarely on the importance of being anxious. The red line in the chart above represents roughly two-thirds of anxious students and the blue line the one-third who aren’t. The horizontal axis plots students on a seven-point scale from those who identify as “very liberal” to those who say they are “very conservative”.

The net result is that, when comparing these two factors, almost all the variation in willingness to shout down a speaker is explained by ideology, not anxiety. Nearly one in two very liberal students support shoutdowns, and even one in five strong conservatives do. The dominance of ideology over mental health also holds when depression is swapped for anxiety, or when different measures of cancel culture are used. Mentally ill students, whether liberal or conservative, are somewhat more censorious than their well-adjusted peers, but this doesn’t make much difference to the overall level of cancel culture.

The depressing takeaway is that cancel culture would flourish even if we discovered a magic pill to end the mental health crisis. Until we can correctly address the real cause of wokeness, we will be powerless to stop it. That is something universities — and much of the wider world — now have to contend with.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and author of Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press, 4 July).

epkaufm

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El Uro
El Uro
3 months ago

This is an ideology and this is the ideology of psychopaths that has flourished in universities.
This is very reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary situation in Russia, when every educated person considered it his duty to at least morally support the revolutionaries. France suffered from the same disease at the end of the 18th century.
The result in both cases was the same – massacre and totalitarian dictatorship. All in the name of progress.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 months ago

I believe this may be a generational phenomenon too. Being ‘woke’ seems to be high among the terminally online. Those of us that are older have many years of ‘off-line’ experience to draw from and so know that many woke shibboleths are based on wonky thinking or ideology rather than scientific reasoning or rational debate.
However, if their time is spent predominantly scrolling through news and social media feeds and that’s the only way you get your information, it is little wonder that the young are becoming anxious and neurotic. I can forgive this in young people as they don’t really know better.
Where I do find fault is in the slew of academics, scientists, journalists, activists, politicians and experts who have very cynically monetized young people’s insecurities in order to feather their own nests. They have totally corrupted our institutions and have zero interest in creating strong, independent individuals who can stand up to them.
I’ve been working in both secondary and tertiary education for over two decades. It was bad twenty years ago, but it’s got a lot worse now. I am not a parent, but if I was, I would much rather teach my child(ren) myself and start a family business rather than waste my money and their time on an education that is rapidly becoming smugly self-satisfied and obsolete. The only exception being perhaps a STEM subject, but even these are not wholly immunized against the woke-mind virus.
I am not at all pessimistic. however. Despite a bumpy ride, I believe the West will experience a large-scale cultural renaissance that will wash away the cobwebs of woke-think.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
3 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

There is definitely a severe lack of resilience driving the mental health crisis. Much of the anxiety is actually completely normal anxiety but is being played up. Too anxious to go to that job interview because I might not get the job, kind of thing. Fear of failure that has been fed by school.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
3 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

I too would challenge what those responding to polls conceive of as “being anxious” and “feeling depressed”. These are perfectly normal experiences for most people at some point (and especially the young) which can be easily turned around for the most part – unless someone comes along and makes you feel “special” for having these feelings, in which case you’ll tend to emphasise them.

j watson
j watson
3 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Our young are much more resilient than we may give them credit for. More insecure futures than my generation could look forward to, less chance of home ownership, pension, job security, longer working life, increasing inequality etc. If they could but know how different this is from what many of us Boomers had to look forward to they would be more depressed! And angry.
I suspect the anger is there, but expressed in different ways – woke-ism perhaps one – missing as yet where they really ought to be turning their ordnance. But that may come as inter-generational unfairness becomes more apparent.

Kat L
Kat L
3 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Right, because the boomers inherited a treasure but bequeathed a tragedy to the generations after them.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
3 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Agreed. That and the apparent demonising of a competitive spirit whether at school, sport the work-place, the list is endless. We need a few winners not just people who are lauded for ‘taking part.’

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I hope you’re right. It bears remembering that the same generation that embraced world peace, free love, and recreational drug use in their youth ended up electing Ronald Reagan to two landslide victories when they actually grew up. None of us can see the future.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago

Why, even in an article that expressly asserts that the practice of shouting down is illiberal, does it nonetheless describe people who engage in this odious practice as liberals?

They are NOT liberal! Call them left-wingers or progressives or whatever, but stop calling people “liberal” who hate other people’s liberty.

Robbie K
Robbie K
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The study the article rather clumsily refers to is far better worded and worth a look
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sjop.13018
It’s no surprise really that individuals who percieve themselves and their colleagues as victims or guilt ridden because of ‘white privilege’ are going to be highly strung and sensitive and therefore more likely to suffer with symptoms of depression.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Sorry to bring this up, but the habit of citing psychological studies from places like Finland or Israel needs to be re-evaluated. These countries, because of their exceptional social organisation, small populations and sense of cohesion, make for nationwide studies that are clear and concise. However, what is being ignored here is that these countries are social outliers in so many ways. I cannot speak for Israel, for example, but have spent quite a bit of time visiting Finland, have a number of friends from that country, and have lived in Denmark for several years (also a country where “psychological surveys” are very prevalent. Finland is a unique country with very unusual social mores and their psycho-medical studies need to be understood in that.light. lt seems that, year after year, Finland is “elected” as the happiest nation on earth. It’s clear that none of the electors ever lived in Finland or spent any time there. If Finns constitute a happy nation, it is because of their powerful sense of belonging to the physical nature that surrounds them and their strongly- felt need to adjust themselves to common goals and well-being. But, individually, Finns suffer from a great deal of depression, social alienation and awkward angst. Their alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world. Finland’s surveys of depression, anxiety and their relation to ideology cannot be scaled to or juxtaposed on the rest of the world. The country is just too unique.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I’ve only been to Finland once, about 25 years ago (it was summer solstice and we were standing outside at 11pm in bright sunshine after a long day in meetings), so I can’t make too many generalisations.

One thing that did surprise me was on a typical Tuesday night where the bars and clubs weren’t especially full, there were people falling-down drunk. That’s not an expression, there were a couple of guys, dressed in suits probably after work, I saw trying to stand up who actually just kept falling flat on their faces. They were utterly plastered. This, apparently, was not a problem: I had asked if it was some sort of national holiday or something and the reply was that this sort of thing was regarded as very common and unremarkable.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

That’s interesting – but in all drinking communities people will be falling-down sometimes (I’ve been there). But in most parts of the world, their post-11pm meanderings will be obscured by the merciful cloak of Night. Could that be – in large part – the difference?

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I wonder if the fact that “conservative” students are underrepresented in most universities (in which shouting down is a “thing”) might account for part of the anxiety score among conservatives?

Seems to me that being conservative but living among a majority of “illiberal” loudmouths would tend to make someone anxious and isolated.

Robbie K
Robbie K
3 months ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

Very good point.

Ian_S
Ian_S
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

So true. “Liberal” to mean left or progressive seems to be a poor habit of American political speech particularly. It takes the word away from the political stance of classical liberalism of which I’m more or less a follower (with exceptions). But all these terms are problematic: calling them Left assumes there’s a Right, both which are tired and inaccurate categories from a past age which explain little. To say “progressives” suggests some kind of teleology (“the right side of history”) whereas their ideologies are shallow and arbitrary, supported by mere groupthink and fabrication. Then of course “woke” which isn’t bad, captures the political moment, but prone to repetition (and will be flogged to death if it’s opponents, i.e. conservatives, don’t use some rhetorical restraint). “Illiberals” seems as good as any.

Well there’s a swag of triggerwords for UnHerd’s censorbot. We’ll see if this comment even gets up.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Well, there is still a political “right” that possesses a distinct ideology and which isn’t just a way of dismissing anyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s extremely simple: it’s the conviction the government should be limited in size and power to the things that it is either good at (eg maintaining a national currency), or things that the private sector definitely ought not to be allowed to do (eg the police or the army).

This idea is, of course, not at all fashionable. It is also, however, not wrong.

Ian_S
Ian_S
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

It certainly isn’t wrong. However, you could call that libertarianism without invoking “rightism”. Also, that’s a shift in what “the right” stands for. In the heyday of the left/right distinction, back in the early to mid 20th century, the right stood for capital, against the left, which was collective labour. To me that’s the point: “the right” doesn’t mean what it did a century ago, any more than “the left” does. The left now is a bourgeois leisure-class movement that loathes the boorish uneducated working classes, which are taken to mean oafs soaked in Whiteness. (Blacks, Muslims, bames and pocs aren’t part of the now-despised “working class”, rather, they’re “oppressed classes”). And the right … seems to me that’s currently under redevelopment, if meaningful at all. Essentially they’re both outdated terms that now muddle people’s thinking.

As always, UnHerd is likely to ban this comment, sadly.

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago

Gnosticism, Romanticism and Existentialism are all ideologies of desperate emotion. Marxism and its variants hold themselves out as the Holistic therapeutic cure. Cultural and Economic redistribution is seen as a synthetic alchemical solution to the world’s social problems. But their failures to solve the emotional crises of the masses produce severe Nihilism.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The only lasting cure for the tragedy of life is the love of Christ.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The Marxist/Socialist ideology has, wherever it has been adopted turned out to be a miserable failure.

Robert
Robert
3 months ago

“A whopping 37% say they are anxious “almost every day” or “always”.”

Wait. Don’t most people of all ages feel anxious at some point every day? Yes – how you define anxiety is important. But, as people grow out of childhood and into adulthood, anxiety becomes a constant companion. Whether one is trying to pass difficult exams, or start a business, or apply for a job, or deal with a demanding boss, one will feel anxious. Later, making sure you keep your SH&T together because a spouse and kids depend on you brings anxiety. I could go on. It seems to me that what is important is how you deal with the anxiety. Just talking about children, what if adults, and especially their parents, started with telling anxious kids that it’s normal to feel anxious! Get used to it! Mom and Dad feel it, too! But, before seeking pills or ‘someone to talk to’ (i.e. a therapist), let’s try putting your phone down and going outside and walking over to your friend’s house and knocking on the door and asking them to come outside with you and, maybe, lay down and look for patterns in the clouds or something useless and unproductive while you talk with each other. Or, for younger kids, go out in the yard with your friend and see what kinds of cool bugs you can find. (This stuff, or variations of it, applies to adults, too.)

Let’s stop filling everyone’s head with conversations about anxiety. Especially kids! Anxiety comes with being a person living in the modern world. It never goes away and constantly talking and thinking about anxiety, especially with a therapist, is guaranteed to make one more anxious.

What if we just started telling everyone, of any age – it’s ok to feel anxious. Everyone does. It’s normal. You’re not alone.

William Brand
William Brand
3 months ago

The great Awokening is part of the pretribulation. The Antichrist is scheduled to rule the world for the last 7 years prior to the return of Jesus. The WOKE movement is Satanic. It prepares for the rule of the Antichrist. We will see the Church rapture within a few years. Then Hell takes over.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
3 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

Cool!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 months ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Nice 🙂

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Something to hope for, eh?

Arthur King
Arthur King
3 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

Not sure about the eshcatological assertion, but I do think the woke are Satanic. They are absurd destroyers of logic (logos) and undermine judeochristian values. Their hatred of God is palpable.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 months ago

A common mistake people make (particularly in the West) is to try to explain things in terms of a linear causation.
We want to know: ‘Did A cause B or did B cause A?’
A better way to look at problems like the rise of Woke and mental health crisis is to see it as a system with positive feedback. We should look for cycles which have the form: ‘a bit of A caused a small reaction in B which then made the A response more likely…’
One example:
‘I cry because my mother doesn’t love me, My mother doesn’t love me because I cry.’
One feeds on the other and the system (mother and child) falls out of love and into trauma. It’s neither of their faults.

Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Yes the article is too hung up on two trends, and trying to work out linear cause – effect. Could be multiple causes, definitely many effects, and certainly feedback loops at work.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
3 months ago

The primary source for the spread of the DEI identitarian and Equality ideology is the British State and its Equality Act of 2010. This inadvertently drilled the extremist DNA of CRT into the national bloodstream by compelling by law every institution to honour the idea of a specially privileged group of victims and an oppressor class (white patrirachy). This twisted worldview mimicked and was compatible with Christianity’s insistence that we defend the interests of the underdog, and so the virus spread easily on into popular culture resulting in all stare entities like the BBC becoming evangelical Woke propagandists, promoting DEI, defending Hamas lies, BLM rioters and covering up grooming gangs.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 months ago

Skeptical about self-reported evaluations of ”mental health” in the first place

N Forster
N Forster
3 months ago

“Today’s mental health crisis, especially among young people, does not explain the rise of “wokeness”.

Do progressive ideas make people unhappy, or are unhappy people drawn to the cultural Left? “

It would seem the other way around – “wokeness” which has already been described as the opposite of cognitive behavioural therapy is a contributing cause of the mental health crisis. The very idea of a “microagression” is the epitome of this – the opposite of CBT – always assuming the worst motivation behind the actions, speech or even thoughts of another.

Do progressive ideas make people unhappy? Clearly. 
Are unhappy people drawn to the left? Sometimes.

Most of us have some sense of other that things in life are not totally satisfying. We may perceive injustice: That others have, and we do not, or that we have, and others don’t. Either way, this perception of injustice can lead people to Left wing views. It seems like a good solution to a perennial problem. This perception can give rise to anger, grief or indifference. And this is where the trouble starts.

Most left leaning people I know have little or no balance between compassion – (the wish that people be free from suffering), and equanimity – (the understanding that everyone suffers). If one has too much of the former, and not enough of the latter, we flip between anger and grief. If we have too much of the latter and not enough of the former, we develop indifference to suffering. 

It’s the lack of equanimity – the understanding that we all suffer, is itself a form mental illness. Both anger and grief can create an all consuming sense of self. And not a beneficial one. Add to this the “woke” obsession with identity, and the conceit is compounded. 

We live in a time where all the ingredients for mass mental illness are present – many of which are covered in Unherd and elsewhere: wokeness, identity, Social Media, the feminisation of politics and the workplace, of public discourse. 

As a result to address the mental health issues on a grand scale is no easy task. But as long as information is out there for people who want it, people can, individually, learn tools and techniques of mental development so they can cope with , understand, accept and overcome the difficulties and problems they face in life. 

ruth novaczek
ruth novaczek
3 months ago

it’s unfortunate that millennials and Gen Z have been prescribed all kinds of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. Diagnosed by doctors in a culture that over-medicates. The world is in a bad way, escalating wars, accelerated poverty, homelessness and insecurity, compounded by mindless scrolling on phones. Go for a walk, have a glass of wine, see friends

Arthur King
Arthur King
3 months ago

The young are anxious because older generations are indifferent to their need for financial security. High housing cost being a chief concern.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
3 months ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Agreed! I wish I could hit the thumbs-up a few more times.
Furthermore, housing has turned into a highly, if quietly, divisive issue. In my own extented family we basically just talk past each other as if we’re living in two different dimensions. In fact, I find myself wondering if the authors of articles like this (which doesn’t even give the topic a mention) aren’t among the real estate-wealthy. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have given it a thought.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 months ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Way too simplistic.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

And looking for the enemy who needs to be blamed for all the misfortunes. And be subjected to dekulakization, obvioulsly

Michael
Michael
3 months ago

If you take God out of everything then you’re left with a vacuum in which all sorts of nasty lefty silliness creeps in.

Bruce Thorne
Bruce Thorne
3 months ago

I recommend Erec Smith, US rhetorics professor, for his spirit of liberal non-woke debate allied with social justice

Kat L
Kat L
3 months ago

It’s less likely to be explained by a liberal because liberals are less likely to really understand religion; that the death of Christianity and all the societal reverberations resulting from is really at the base of all of it.