The CDC report on the mental health crisis among teen girls is just the latest in a series of headlines that seem to indicate America is deeply, horribly troubled. Racial animosity, police violence, loneliness and anomie magnified by the pandemic, lost learning, angry young men, abuse in the church, depression, anxiety, death by suicide. The American people are in pain, there’s no doubt about it.
And this in one of the most economically privileged societies in the world, in human history no less. One of the most pluralistic societies and, despite setbacks in recent years, one of the most democratic ones. What is going on?
I have a dear Tanzanian friend (he’s also my long-time Swahili teacher) who has been in the US for the first time this year on a Fulbright scholarship. When he won the scholarship, after years of pursuit, we were both so happy we could burst. I knew it would be an incredible opportunity for him to learn and grow, and one that will hopefully open up new paths and horizons for him going forward. But I also knew coming here would be hard. There are things about American culture with which I still struggle, things that don’t compare favorably with African culture.
“You’re going to be homesick. You may not like it here,” I told him.
But in his mind, as in the minds of pretty much every African friend I’ve had, America was some kind of magical place where all your heart’s desires are waiting on shelves in gleaming stores for the taking.
He’s found out I was right, America is no Disneyland. In addition to some unforeseen logistical difficulties and general culture shock, he summed it up for me well in a recent conversation: “People here just don’t care about you.”
And he’s right. Americans feel little obligation to each other, certainly not to those they don’t personally know. The webs of community are threadbare here, practically non-existent compared to those in African societies, where it is expected that any good fortune is shared and any bad fortune is shouldered by those around you. Americans are fundamentally on their own, lonely and alone, the product of individual striving and achievement, the flip side of freedom, self-actualization, and the abundance of choice.
That’s a big part of the story of our mental health crisis, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. America is also in the midst of an apocalypse, in the ancient, original sense, as Russell Moore used the term to describe the abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention. “Apocalypse” derives from Latin by way of Greek, meaning to uncover and to reveal. And that is what is happening in America right now. Everything that has been hidden is being uncovered. Everything that lurked in shadows is coming to light. Everything that our collective mind had dissociated and protected us from is moving into the conscious realm.
We as a culture are acutely, painfully aware, all at once, and it is almost unbearable. But I believe what is happening now is paving the way to a higher form of human existence and society. Yes, that sounds ridiculously utopian, but please stay with me here.
To recall an earlier post and conversation I had with my therapist friend, Jennifer, a basic cognitive feature of our brains is its ability to dissociate, or to shut off consciousness of one reality to focus on something else. When we zone out while driving because we are lost in thought about a relationship or work problem, we are dissociating.
More significantly and urgently, the brain often does this in response to trauma. It builds a wall around that experience and dismisses it to varying degrees. In the most extreme cases, it pretends it never happened, and the person has no consciousness of it at all. The good news is, this allows you to continue on with basic life functions and protects you from the brunt of the pain. The bad news is it also shuts down a part of yourself that might function on a higher level, that might form more meaningful relationships, that might realize the full potential of one’s gifts. People who have dissociated from trauma will often develop self-sabotaging behaviors or have stunted, superficial relationships and never know why.
When I studied psychology in college, the theory that most stayed with me and that I still feel explains so much of what I see in human society–and what explains a lot of cultural difference I’ve witnessed in my international life–is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow theorized that human beings function within a pyramid of needs, and they cannot attempt to meet higher needs of “self-actualization”–full realizing one’s full potential in developing talents and relationships–until more basic needs are met. People who live hand-to-mouth, who are consumed with simply finding enough food and ensuring their physical safety don’t have the energy or mental space to think about higher needs of intellectual stimulation, artistry, or deep bonding derived from mutual vulnerability. I would add that they also routinely dissociate from the more traumatic parts of their individual and collective existence as a means of survival.
In American culture, we have, over time, evolved beyond the meeting of basic needs and slowly worked our way up the ladder. Despite depressing headlines of gun violence and other crime, believe it or not, we have on the whole, and statistically, become richer and more physically secure over the decades. We have also reached higher planes of racial and gender equality and acceptance of individual difference. We have less tolerance for abuse and bigotry and harm. We have greater appreciation and expertise and treatment for mental health as a component of overall wellness and a stronger system of laws that ensure accountability. And, very importantly, we also have more resources and modes of communication and incentive structures and demand for transparency and information.
In other words, unlike previous generations, we are incredibly aware. Of everything. All of it. All the social problems that have always been there. Anywhere it is happening, at any given time. Things that have been hidden for so long. All of it is happening all day, every day, in front of our own eyes. Our own trauma. Those of others. Our own emotional responses. Those of others. All of it.
If you think children weren’t abused in the past, that girls and women weren’t raped and exploited, that racial and other violence wasn’t meted out with nauseating ferocity, that people weren’t plagued with depression and anxiety–well, you don’t know the half of it, literally. None of us do. Because these things weren’t often discussed or reported or dealt with.
Another therapist, one that actually treated me, told me that over many years of practice, she has noticed a marked generational difference in clients, particularly pre-Baby Boomer/older Boomer and after. She finds older people she has worked with on the whole (and there are of course always individual differences) struggle with self-awareness and introspection. They simply haven’t exercised those muscles as much as younger generations, and it’s not as natural for them. Which makes perfect sense–the Baby Boomers were the first generation raised in affluence, the first generation who in large numbers did not wonder how their basic needs might be met. Unsurprisingly, they were also the generation that pushed for massive social change in the form and racial and gender equality. They also began demanding more of their marriages, leading to skyrocketing divorce rates, and asking more their lives in general, which perhaps fed into the drug culture and other forms of hedonism as a response to disappointed expectations.
Subsequent generations have pushed things further. Gen X–stereotypically neglected by parents discontented enough to pursue larger goals than raising kids but not yet self-aware enough to critique their own behavior and motivations–have pursued a more nurturing and involved parental style. #MeToo was the millennial-led outcry against sexual abuse and harassment that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers simply accepted as the price of entry into male spaces. Zoomers are open books on wellness and mental health and insistent on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
As Americans have become more comfortable with and aware of their own internal lives and emotional needs, national news and mass communication and now social media have ensured over time that any individual trauma anywhere becomes our collective trauma everywhere. Nothing happens in the shadows anymore. It’s all in our faces.
Younger generations are both more aware of all the terrible things going on in the world AND their emotional response to it. We aren’t dissociating anymore as a culture.
But we haven’t yet fully developed replacement coping skills, such as leaning on each other in meaningful ways. We are traumatized, we are aware, and we are (still) culturally atomized and alone.
What we are all experiencing now–and what our children are absorbing most acutely–is a massive purge of historical, evolutionary proportions. It is a lot to take in. In the short run, it’s going to hurt, and more trauma will be had. But in the long run, I truly believe the truth will set us free.
More and more of us are confronting our deepest human needs. More and more of us are grappling unflinchingly with our pain and disappointment. But more and more of us are going to develop the skills and access the help we need to cope, not by dissociating and ignoring and cutting parts of ourselves off–parts that might have otherwise brought us to places of more enlightenment, productivity, and fulfillment–but by dealing with reality as it is and making it better.
And as more and more of us do this, as we come into our own and make peace with ourselves, maybe we will also build more communities of mutual vulnerability and authentic relationship. Maybe we won’t feel so alone.
Before the dawn comes the night. But the dawn does come. Human history has an undeniable, propulsive energy, ever forward. We are getting there, even now.