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Posted on November 1, 2019 at 10:30 AM

Western Morning News December 2018


The snowflake generation

The crisis in mental health is all too real, says Dr John Dean

Each successive generation introduces new words to their vocabulary, often making the language they speak impenetrable to their parents. So let’s begin with a vocabulary test to see how ‘woke’ you are. If you are ‘woke’, you will also almost certainly understand the meaning of the word ‘snowflake’. This term is used to describe oversensitive young adults who are more prone to taking offense and less resilient than adults in previous generations, or are too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own. In order to protect vulnerable ‘snowflake’ students, some universities have created safe spaces on campus where they can escape to avoid emotional upset. And lecturers are encouraged to warn students about potentially disturbing content in their course, allowing the students to skip that bit in case it may ‘trigger’ an unpleasant emotional response. Invited speakers with contrarian views have been greeted by (sometimes violent) demonstrations by students whipped up into a state of moral panic. Even Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of the BBC’s Woman’s Hour has recently been ‘deplatformed’ by Oxford University students because of her views on transgender issues. If you make a seemingly innocent comment with no intention to insult, such as asking a person of colour ‘where are you from?’ you are guilty of ‘micro aggression’ by implying that they are not truly British


So it is tempting to conclude that the reported rise in mental health issues in young people is simply a consequence of their emotional fragility or a modern manifestation of the age-old problem of teenage angst. Doing so ignores the wealth of data highlighting the rise in young peoples mental heath problems. Eating disorders (such as anorexia), anxiety, depression, and self-harm are all on the rise. An article in Psychological Medicine in September showed that between 1995 to 2014 there was a tenfold increase in long-standing mental health conditions in 16-24 year-olds. According to The Mental Health Foundation 10% of children and young people aged between 5-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health condition yet 70% of those will not have received appropriate, timely treatment. In its latest annual report, The Children’s Society found that self-harming behaviour is at alarming levels with 22% of 14 year-old girls deliberately injuring themselves. Almost half of children who are attracted to the same or both genders self-harm. Although some of these figures may represent an increased readiness to talk about mental health issues, this would not explain how the number of students taking their own lives has increased by over one fifth in the last decade.

It seems clear that the crisis in young peoples’ mental health is very real. And it is not that difficult to see why this is happening. Pressured from an early age by schools forced to focus on relentlessly testing rather than educating. Overprotected and indulged by parents unwilling to expose their children to any risk, raising them to believe they are entitled to whatever they want, whenever and however they want it. Increasing exposure to social media that paradoxically leads to increased social isolation – they may have hundreds of virtual friends in cyberspace but interact with none of them in real life. Confusion and peer pressure about conforming to gender stereotypes. A university education that leaves students facing the prospect of a lifetime of debt. And now the opportunity to move freely to live, love and work across 28 European countries is being snatched away by a Brexit that the overwhelming majority do not want. As with all health related issues there is an economic gradient: poverty being the key predictor of poor mental health. A decade of austerity has led to increasing numbers of children and young adults living in poverty. We are witnessing the inevitable decline in their physical and mental health.

But is it fair to label our young people as the snowflake generation? In a recent poll by YouGov/Prospect in the UK, two out of three respondents agreed with the statement: “Too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” choosing this option rather than: “People need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.” There was remarkably little variation by age, and the youngest age group of 18 to 24-year-olds was slightly less ‘politically correct’ than the population as a whole. A parallel study in the USA found similar results. So there appears to be little generational variation in ‘snow-flakiness’. Perhaps the perceived rise is simply due to increased media coverage. Just because you feel vulnerable and sensitive, it does not necessarily follow that you are not prepared to make a lot of noise about it. But the evidence that there is an increasing problem with mental health issues in children and young people is overwhelming. Yet the services they desperately need are in pitifully short supply and have been hit very hard by cutbacks in public spending. You do not need to be very ‘woke’ to appreciate that.


Dr John Dean is a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. The views expressed are his own


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