mental health

The kids are not all right

In Short

We have boxed ourselves and our kids into a situation that is not compatible with life.

Ask any therapist treating young adults, and they will tell you the same thing: Their phones are ringing nonstop, waiting lists are building, parents are worrying, and our youth are suffering. The statistics are well-documented (see the American Psychological Association, CDC, and National Institute of Mental Health, to name a few) and reflect what we all see to be true: rates of mental illness, anxiety and depression in particular, are on the rise among teens and young adults.

I work in a college counseling center, where we are proud of the inroads we’ve made in the college community such that students are more comfortable than ever before to seek the help they need. And as those needs have increased, we have stretched ourselves farther and tried to spread our reach wider, so that no student should ever feel that they need to suffer alone. We take late-night calls, squeeze in after-hours check-ins, and in session after session, allow students to unburden themselves, as we hold some of their pain. We are glad to do it. For many of us, it is our calling. But we are tired, and we are worried.

So forgive me if I sound dramatic, but I am here to tell you this: The kids are not all right.

We are asking more of our young people than ever before. We demand academic rigor and social perfection. Students today balance ever more challenging course work with the pressure of one day stepping up into their parents’ financial shoes to support families of their own. Our students see futures of houses and babies and yeshiva tuition and Pesach programs, and how can they not wonder how they will ever keep up? COVID has magnified this stress, with its social isolation and very real concerns about health and finances. But in truth, the seeds of our current communal angst were laid many years before.

The beauty of community is that its structure is reassuring. The danger of community is that its structure can be suffocating. When communal norms become too rigid and the expectation is that everyone must walk in lock-step, looking perfect while doing it, something has to give.

So please hear me when I say that our demands have become too tight. We have boxed ourselves and our kids into a situation that is not compatible with life. The students we see are afraid to slip off-course, terrified that any detour from the plan will mean that everything will fall apart. 

To our community’s credit, we have in many ways stepped up. Our schools and institutions have begun to acknowledge these cries, and are working to meet the mental health needs of our children and families. We’ve begun to destigmatize diagnoses and asking for help. We practice moments of mindfulness, and hire support teams for our schools. We teach students about balance and healthy habits, and we preach self-care.

And yet.

The nagging feeling remains that we’ve merely commodified wellness, created another unachievable goal, another metric by which we can never measure up. More support, more resources, more money spent on calming down when what we’re really doing is ramping up. Are we calm now? Are we balanced now? Are we there yet?

This cannot be the community we intended to create. The barriers to entry are too high and the price of inclusion is too steep. Human weakness must be ok. We must be allowed to be imperfect, and we must model to our children that we accept differences. Struggles are a part of life, and to deny that is to lie about the most basic truth of our humanity.

And so, what I am suggesting is less. Less pressure, fewer demands, less judgment, and less comparison. Let’s find ways to opt out, instead of creating more and more to which we must opt in. Let’s lessen the pressure to check every box, and do so on a timetable that can’t possibly work for everyone. Let’s erase the need to maintain the illusion of perfection.

Here is how we can get started today.

  1. Know the stats. Recent statistics from the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) reveal that 21% of all adults in the US are experiencing a mental illness. When we look at young adults ages 18-25, that rate jumps to 30%. So if your own child isn’t dealing with mental illness, you can be sure that another young adult you care about is. 
  2. Be aware of the way we speak about mental health. With a number as high as 30% prevalence of mental illness, it’s wise to assume that someone in your inner circle is suffering. So be careful with your language, both explicit and implicit. Saying that you would not allow your child to date someone with any mental health history is often a de facto way of telling your own children that they too are unfit. They hear the way you speak about imperfection and they worry that they themselves do not measure up.
  3. Please let’s reframe what we think of as an “older single.” In fact, let’s delete the term from our collective vocabulary entirely. Not everyone is ready for marriage, or finds their partner, at the same age or at all. Let’s not tell anyone in our community that they are older than they ought to be. Our goal must be to create happy and healthy homes, focusing less on the age at which those homes are created.
  4. Take a look at our assumptions about “right” and “wrong” choices. Are those expectations reflective of our own deeply-held values, or are they assumptions of necessity based on current communal trends? When you hear about a young adult who opted not to study in yeshiva, or changed their professional goals, or took some other step that is outside the bounds of what is typical for your community, how do you respond? Your words signal to your own children how much freedom they have to make choices of their own. A response such as, “How brave of them to make a choice that works for them,” can go a very long way.

Let’s let the kids breathe. Let’s let them be. Let’s give them time to think and let them find their own way. Let’s expand our own conceptions of what they can and must do, and put to rest our old assumptions about who they must be. 

Our children know this already. In the communities of their own making, we see them prioritizing inclusion. They celebrate resiliency and attempt to be more honest with one another about their struggles. They are less afraid of differences than we are, but they are looking to us to tell them it’s ok. Let’s take a communal deep breath, and follow their lead.

The kids will be all right.

Debra Alper, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff at the Yeshiva University counseling center, and the founder of Kadima Psychotherapy.