Why are young liberals so depressed?
There's a neglected dimension beyond gender in America's troubled youth
Fresh episode of Bad Takes is out today, all about the war on fake license plates.
Earlier this month the CDC released the results of its Youth Risk Behavior Survey of American teenagers. The findings have been much discussed, with the focus largely and understandably on the fact that teenage girls are suffering from extraordinarily high levels of sadness and depression. But I think the conversation has overlooked a few things.
One possible culprit for this widespread sadness is that social media apps are especially damaging to girls’ psychological health, a thesis long championed by Jonathan Haidt. And even though on its face Haidt’s point seems left-wing (new technology has downside risks and big companies need to be regulated more), the idea has taken on a mostly right-wing inflection, with Josh Hawley as its most vocal champion in the Senate.
Social media is good at generating polarization, and some of the left-inflected pushback has essentially argued that maybe teens aren’t depressed because of phones but because, in Taylor Lorenz’s words, “we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world.” Noah Smith and Eric Levitz both wrote good articles questioning the veracity of that doomer narrative, and Michelle Goldberg did an excellent piece trying to reframe the issue, arguing correctly that “the idea that unaccountable corporate behemoths are harming kids with their products shouldn’t be a hard one for liberals to accept, even if figures like Hawley believe it as well.”1
But I want to talk about something Goldberg mentions but doesn’t focus on: a 2021 paper by Catherine Gimbrone, Lisa Bates, Seth Prins, and Katherine Keyes titled “The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs.” The CDC survey doesn’t ask teens about their political beliefs, but Gimbrone et. al. find not only divergence by gender, but divergence by political ideology. Breaking things down by gender and ideology, they find that liberal girls have the highest increase in depressive affect and conservative boys have the least. But liberal boys are more depressed than conservative girls, suggesting an important independent role for political ideology.
I think the discussion around gender and the role of social media is an important one. But I also don’t believe that liberal boys are experiencing more depression than conservative girls because they are disproportionately hung up on Instagram-induced body image issues — I think there’s also something specific to politics going on.
Some of it might be selection effect, with progressive politics becoming a more congenial home for people who are miserable. But I think some of it is poor behavior by adult progressives, many of whom now valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment. The thing about depression, though, is that it’s bad. Separate from the Smith/Levitz project of arguing about recent political trends, I think we need some kind of society-level cognitive behavioral therapy to convince people that whatever it is they are worried about, depression is not the answer. Because it never is.
The politics of depression
Three of the politics of depression paper’s authors are also co-authors on a newer paper arguing that “as efforts to increase policing and roll back criminal legal system reforms in major U.S. cities rise, the collateral consequences of increased criminalization remain critical to document” and looking at the idea that “criminalization may contribute to racial disparities in mental health.” Like most academics, they seem to be quite left-wing. If there were more Republicans working as professors, we’d probably balance out this line of inquiry with papers asking whether rising levels of shootings and homicides also contribute to racial disparities in mental health.2 But there aren't. So even when all the research being done is good, we primarily see research looking at the questions that progressives think are interesting.
In keeping with that, the politics of depression authors seem very interested in the idea that liberal teens are depressed because they correctly perceive injustice in the world:
Adolescents in the 2010s endured a series of significant political events that may have influenced their mental health. The first Black president, Democrat Barack Obama, was elected to office in 2008, during which time the Great Recession crippled the US economy (Mukunda 2018), widened income inequality (Kochhar & Fry 2014) and exacerbated the student debt crisis (Stiglitz 2013). The following year, Republicans took control of the Congress and then, in 2014, of the Senate. Just two years later, Republican Donald Trump was elected to office, appointing a conservative supreme court and deeply polarizing the nation through erratic leadership (Abeshouse 2019). Throughout this period, war, climate change (O’Brien, Selboe, & Hawyard 2019), school shootings (Witt 2019), structural racism (Worland 2020), police violence against Black people (Obasogie 2020), pervasive sexism and sexual assault (Morrison-Beedy & Grove 2019), and rampant socioeconomic inequality (Kochhar & Cilluffo 2019) became unavoidable features of political discourse. In response, youth movements promoting direct action and political change emerged in the face of inaction by policymakers to address critical issues (Fisher & Nasrin 2021, Haenschen & Tedesco 2020). Liberal adolescents may have therefore experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.
I’m not saying any of those particular points are wrong. But if these Columbia epidemiologists walked down the street to talk to Columbia economist Richard Clarida, I wonder how he would characterize political trends over the last 20 years. Clarida was Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Economic Policy under George W. Bush, and in terms of the big political fights of the mid-Bush years — the Iraq War, gay marriage, Social Security privatization — liberals totally ran the table. The collapse in political support for Bush-style free trade policies has been so complete that hardly anyone even remembers that’s what the conservative view was.
So is it really true that in some objective sense, conservative views are flourishing and hegemonic?
It’s really hard to definitely prove that one side or the other is “winning” the game of American politics. The answer depends on how you weigh different topics, and people often shift their views on the relative importance of things depending on the context. What I think is most relevant from a mental health perspective is that like most things in life, politics is a bit of a mixed bag that could be looked at in different ways.
The catalog of woes offered in the paper sounds less to me like a causal explanation of why progressive teens have more depressive affect than it does like listening to a depressed liberal give an account of recent American politics. Note for example the negative framing of the fact that progressives have used their agenda-setting power to make structural racism, pervasive sexism, and rampant socioeconomic inequality into unavoidable features of political discourse. One could instead say this is what the path to victory looks like — progressive activists and intellectuals have succeeded in getting more people to pay attention to what they think are the most important problems.
Mentally processing ambiguous events with a negative spin is just what depression is. And while the finding that liberals are disproportionately likely to do it is interesting and important, it’s not sound practice to celebrate that or tell them that they are right to do it.
Stop encouraging people to catastrophize
I have at times in my life struggled seriously with depression. I’ve been on antidepressants, I’ve tried trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, I’ve seen therapists. I also, separately, did therapy for anger management. But I’ve been feeling good for the past few years, and one thing that strikes me about this discourse is how much the heavily political treatments of depression diverge from the practices they try to teach you in therapy.
For example, it’s important to reframe your emotional response as something that’s under your control:
Stop saying “so-and-so made me angry by doing X.”
Instead say “so-and-so did X, and I reacted by becoming angry.”
And the question you then ask yourself is whether becoming angry made things better? Did it solve the problem? Did the ensuing situation make you happier? The point isn’t that nobody should ever feel anger or that anger is never an appropriate reaction to a situation. But some of us have a bad habit of becoming angry in ways that makes our lives worse, and we should try not to do that.
Depression can be a particularly thorny problem because, as Scott Alexander writes in an excellent post, the nature of being depressed is that you become unduly pessimistic about the possibility of changing things:
But I will say this from having worked with many patients in similar situations — they are usually surprised by how much of their depression goes away after they get out of the situation. And more important, they usually overestimate how hard it would be to get out of the situation — remember, depressed people are pessimists, so the person who’s depressed because of their terrible job will naturally think they could never get another job, or that all jobs would be equally bad. Please, please, please don’t let your depressive bias keep you in your depressing situation.
Life is complicated, and this is difficult. But for a very wide range of problems, part of helping people get out of their trap is teaching them not to catastrophize. People who are paralyzed by anxiety or depression or who are lashing out with rage aren’t usually totally untethered from reality. They are worried or sad or angry about real things. But instead of changing the things they can change and seeking the grace to accept the things they can’t, they’re dwelling unproductively as problems fester.
Jill Filipovic wrote a good post a couple of weeks ago about students at Macalester College trying to block an exhibition by an Iranian-American artist named Taravat Talepasand. This incident is part of a pattern of left-wing social justice concepts being invoked to support right-wing religious sentiments held by minority religious groups and ending up in conflict with western feminists. I heard the late great Susan Moller Okin lecture on her book “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” over 20 years ago, and Filipovic is essentially writing about a new iteration of what Okin was worried about in the 90s.
But Filipovic zooms out to a larger point that I think was only embryonic in the 90s, which is that progressive institutional leaders have specifically taught young progressives that catastrophizing is a good way to get what they want:
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 event 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. That isn’t to say that people who experience victimization or trauma should just muscle through it, or that any individual can bootstraps their way into wellbeing. It is to say, though, that in some circumstances, it is a choice to process feelings of discomfort or even offense through the language of deep emotional, spiritual, or even physical wound, and choosing to do so may make you worse off. Leaning into the language of “harm” creates and reinforces feelings of harm, and while using that language may give a person some short-term power in progressive spaces, it’s pretty bad for most people’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, to manage inevitable adversity, and to navigate a complicated world.
I thought about this again when I read a Wall Street Journal report about Stanford’s system for Protected Identity Harm Reporting. A lot of the specific controversy on campus is about free speech and the processing problems inherent in any kind of anonymous complaint system. But to Filipovic’s point, there’s a larger dysfunction in this conceptualization of “harms.”
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