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Mental health is collapsing. Is "safety-ism" to blame?
A social scientist on "the coddling of the American mind"
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the origin of peanut allergies. What was once a rare problem has become shockingly common. And the root of the problem, ironically, is parent’s awareness of it.
You see, peanut allergies develop much more frequently when children are not exposed to peanuts. But because parents became more aware of the possibility of peanut allergies, they started avoiding giving their young children peanuts to eat. The result of this excessive focus on safety is that children actually became much less safe. Their immune systems have not developed any resilience to the peanut protein. The focus on safety becomes “safety-ism”, a pathological concern for safety that ironically makes children less safe.
Something similar, Haidt argues, is happening with mental health. There is good evidence that exposure to emotional challenges, if incremental, strengthens the human mind. But parents in modern times — and school teachers, counselors, and others in positions of authority over children — are so concerned with keeping their children happy (and away from anything that might cause fear or pain) that they’ve left their emotional immune systems very weak. Any small shock to the system can cause distress, and major society wide shocks — e.g., a pandemic, or political conflict and polarization — have absolutely devastating impacts. It’s a form of safetyism, applied to our society’s emotional and political life.
Haidt’s hypothesis was just that a few years ago. But data coming out in the last couple years is turning his hypothesis into a solid theory. Take, for example, this recent report from the Surgeon General:
In the United States, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared to the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4 percent for boys.
Globally, symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic, the report noted. But mental health issues were already on the rise in the United States, with emergency room visits related to depression, anxiety and similar conditions up 28 percent between 2011 and 2015.
This is a huge problem for our society, but especially for those who are making efforts at change. Because people who are anxious, depressed, or negative tend to be reluctant to embrace challenge or change. But that is exactly what activists are seeking for our entire society. So what is an activist to do?
There’s only so much we can do to swim against society-wide currents. But here are a few things I think we should try:
Create more social connection in real life.
Safety-ism is caused by two problems. People’s reluctance to engage in experiences that upset them. And their inability to process them positively when they do have those experiences. Real in person connections can help with both of these problems, by exposing people to more experiences of all types, that they can’t sign off from by clicking a button, and by seeing that negative interactions don’t have to stay negative, as our natural human tendency to not want to hurt one another kicks in.
Create supportive networks that focus on reducing, and not amplifying, the power of fear
People who have bad emotional experiences need support. But Safety-ism makes those experiences seem more fearful than they need to be. Our norms and networks instead should be focused on giving people support in a way that makes them less afraid of what they experienced. For example, if there’s a conflict between two people, we can either support each party by talking about how awful and acceptable the other person is, or we can focus on how strong and resilient the harmed parties are. The latter focus is much more likely to avoid Safety-ism’s pitfalls.
Talk about this problem openly, but positively.
The mental health crisis facing America, and especially young people, can’t be addressed if we don’t talk about it. But talking about it in the wrong way can amplify the problem. So we need to talk about it, but talk about it in a way that helps both individuals and communities grow and learn, rather than remain stuck in a state of depression or fear.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think we’re in a mental health crisis, and why? And is Haidt right that “coddling” is to blame?