The Young and the Uncared For
The dark truths behind our obsession with self-care.
Photo by Elizabeth Renstrom
Sarah Baba was riding her local bus when a wave of panic hit her. Her breath quickened and she felt lightheaded and dizzy. She needed to get off the bus immediately. She stepped out onto a busy street in Brixton, South London, and walked in a daze, tears streaming down her face.
That’s when she knew—it was happening again. She’d been diagnosed with depression 10 years before, when she was in her mid 20s, and this time she recognized the warning signs: trouble sleeping, the urge to avoid other people, and bursting into tears for no reason. Now the depression had brought anxiety along with it, frightening her with intense panic attacks.
Baba was put on a waiting list for specialized and intensive therapy from the NHS, the national healthcare system in the UK, since her job didn’t come with coverage for mental health. While she waited, Baba turned to self-care.
She read books on depression and anxiety, listened to podcasts, and tried to follow the advice they gave her. She’d heard exercise was an antidote for anxiety, and began to run weekly. Her sister raved to her about mindfulness meditation, so she downloaded an app. She tried journaling to empty the burdensome thoughts from her head. But in the depths of depression, she often didn’t have the energy to pick up a pen to write the date, let alone pour out her feelings. The bigger issues—“the self hatred, the guilt, pressure, self-doubt,” as she described them to me—remained.
Baba’s story is illustrative of two converging trends: the inability of institutional healthcare to address a mental health crisis among young people today, and the rise of an industry selling the promise of mental health with the kind of aspirational messaging usually reserved for luxury brands.
It’s estimated that in 2016, 275 million people worldwide experienced an anxiety disorder and around 268 million experienced depression. For the same year, the National Institute of Health in the United States reported that 16.2 million American adults—most prevalently, 18- to 25-year-olds—had had at least one major depressive episode. I myself am one tiny part of these statistics; after dealing with confusing and sometimes crippling anxiety for most of my life, I was diagnosed with OCD at 26.
The crisis is not only in the diagnoses, but in the profound lack of proper care. In 2017, the nonprofit Mental Health America found that 56.5 percent of US adults with a mental illness received no treatment, and neither did 64.1 percent of American youths with major depression.
From the ashes of these increasing mental health burdens has risen a trendy, Instagrammable solution: self-care. We young people, suffering in unprecedented numbers, have been forced to take on the responsibility of caring for ourselves, and have fallen under the spell of this hashtaggable term to do so.
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