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Overmedicalisation is harming Generation Z

Zoomers are fragile because they have been told they are

There has been a lot of generational ire levelled against Gen Z — also known, among other things, as Generation Feeble, Generation Sicknote and Generation Anxious. While frustrations with the young may be inherent to intergenerational relations, Gen Z — a cohort born roughly between 1997 and 2012 — has rightly become a particular cause for concern, suffering from increasingly poor mental health and rising worklessness.

According to a recent report by the Resolution Foundation, the number of economically inactive 18-to-24-year-olds with health issues has more than doubled since 2013. Young people have gone from the group least likely to suffer from mental health issues to the most likely in just a couple of decades. Forty percent of those economically inactive due to health issues now cite mental health as the main reason for not being in work. 

In tandem there also appears to be growing apathy towards work in general. TikTok trends such as “Quit-Tok” and the rise of the ideas of the “Lazy Girl Job” and “Quiet Quitting” indicate that this Generation’s belief in the social value of work — that work is something that brings benefits to yourself and others — has been vastly diminished, with the atomised Gen Z preferring to “prioritise themselves”. The scale of this challenge is indicated by Office for National Statistics figures which show that nearly three million under-25s are neither employed nor looking for a job.

worklessness decreases social interaction and motivation, and so risks worsening mental health issues

While self-prioritisation can guard against overwork, when it translates into not working at all, it has clearly gone too far. At that point, it is an extreme form of self-centeredness which fails to recognise that work itself is often good for physical and mental wellbeing. Work can provide social connections; a way of structuring time; and a sense of personal achievement, all of which can help to place stresses and strains in context. Whereas, worklessness decreases social interaction and motivation, and so risks worsening mental health issues. 

What is more, this dual crisis in work and mental health is only going to place more economic stress and strain on the young who are working — they are the ones who will have to foot the burgeoning disability benefits bill and make up for the huge costs in lost productivity and unpaid informal care for their peers. Indeed, recent analysis by the Centre for Mental Health shows that mental illness costs the UK around £300 billion annually

To tackle this crisis, we must first tackle the postmodernist thinking and over-medicalisation that drive it. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mel Stride, was right to recognise the urgency of the situation when he voiced his concerns that the culture of mental health had gone too far, resulting in the medicalisation of everyday stresses.

Such overmedicalisation is deeply unhelpful, if not dangerous. It risks young people reaching for prescription antidepressants even for mild mental health issues such as anhedonia, restlessness and disinterest. Indeed, antidepressant prescriptions almost doubled between 2008 and 2018. This number only continues to rise, with recent data showing that, in 2022/23, 86 million antidepressant prescriptions were given to an estimated 8.6 million patients

Antidepressants not only come with serious side and withdrawal effects, but threaten to paper over the cracks of deep individual and societal problems

Of course, medication for individuals with serious mental health conditions can be very helpful, but it should not be the first option that young people reach for when life becomes stressful. Antidepressants not only come with serious side and withdrawal effects, but threaten to paper over the cracks of deep individual and societal problems.

To make matters worse, discourse around mental health has become fertile ground for postmodernist thought, especially its deep suspicion of all categories, including scientific ones. Indeed, its recent proponents, who can be found across our public institutions, often view medical science as an unjust arbiter of what is considered “normal” and “abnormal” and so who is “well” or “unwell”. Postmodernism therefore attempts to make these labels mean anything to anyone. This is concerning, as if someone is experiencing stresses and strains, they could more easily perceive themselves to have a serious mental health condition, and there is little that can be done to refute this self-identification. 

Social media, that popular bogeyman for society’s ills, may not be the only source of problems that we face but certainly compounds them. As a medium of communication, it compresses the complex problem of mental health into a few words or soundbites. For instance, Instagram accounts such as “Memes For Mental Health” and “My Therapist Says” are relatable but lack nuance. What is more, influencers are able to build personal brands around their mental health problems, and while some may seek to promote genuine awareness the medium’s reductivity nonetheless encourages young people to build an oversimplified persona around real or perceived mental health issues. 

As such, young people have become immersed in a cultural milieu where equating emotional turbulence to a medical condition — and equating that to a valid identity — is the norm.  Clearly, this is not going to help young people manage the very real stresses of the world of work. How can we even begin to demand resilience if being mentally ill is a part of the young person’s sense of self?

To better display that mental health challenges need not become an individual’s identity, we need to understand that human beings find meaning through social interactions, including those provided through work, rather than allowing mental health issues to be beholden to a form of medicalising identity politics. 

So, while there is not a silver bullet to the intertwined problems of poor mental health and worklessness, we can certainly do worse than re-emphasising the social and moral value of work — and doing what we can to increase the incentives to work. Indeed, this might just do Gen Z some good.

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