Category Archives: Alienation

Epidemic of Despair  


When Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who besides being a physician is also a periodic commentator on CNN  first started looking at the deaths in the white middle class that included deaths by opioid overdose, suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, it felt a bit mysterious. He was struck by the numbers but did not really understand the causes. It took some time for him to piece things together.


He found an interesting article with an interesting title. This was “The Epidemic of Despair Among White Americans: Trends in the Leading Causes of Premature Death, 1999-2015” published by Elizabeth Stein, MD. MS, Keith P Gennuso, PhD, […] and Patrick Remington, MD MPH in the medical journal American Journal of Public Health. An epidemic of despair? That is very strong language? Is it justified? Gupta wanted to know. So did I.

Dr. Gupta wanted to know, ‘what causes those deaths of despair?’ That is an important question. He was not satisfied with the medical causes of death. He wanted to know ‘the cause of the cause.’ He, like me, thought that was a much more significant question. But this one is harder to tackle.

Why are people taking so many opioids?  Why are they becoming addicted? Part of it is overprescribing for which physicians are responsible. Why are so many people drinking to excess? Why are so many people dying of suicide. Is there a common cause of the cause?

As Neurosurgery Resident Kumar Vasudevan put it, “We are living in a time in which we are very, very good at treating diseases, we are less good and less proficient at understanding health.”  I would add, that many of us are reluctant to look at social causes, and, believe it or not, political causes. Is that possible?

As Dr. Gupta said, “deaths of despair seem to be a symptom of an underlying problem, rather than the problem itself.” Cyril Wecht believes that the underlying problem is that American society is increasingly stressed. Pressures make lives more and more difficult. Pressures of making a living, depersonalization, families breaking up, and what he calls the “robotization of society.”

But there were also things that happened on the side of medicine. The idea began to flourish that people should not have to suffer. If they suffer that was seen as a failure of medicine. There always seem to be simple solutions–write a prescription. Drugs can take care of any problem. But simple solutions are often the most dangerous. And prescriptions were one of them.

Of course there is more to it than this. Let’s look farther.

The Politics of Depression and Anxiety


Politics is not usually a good mix with health issues. Politics can tend to make us all stupid. What does politics have to do with the rising rates of youth depression, anxiety, and even suicides? First of all, it shouldn’t have anything to do with that, but it does. Bigly.

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times pointed out that a recent study showed that adolescents who leaned left were experiencing a greater increase in depression than their conservative peers. While girls were more likely to be depressed than boys, liberal boys had higher rates of depression than conservative girls?  What does that mean?

According to Goldberg,

“It’s long been known that liberals tend to be more depressed than conservatives, which you can interpret as either a cause or an effect of their unhappiness with the status quo. But innate factors couldn’t explain why, among the 12th graders the study examined, the gap in depressive symptoms between liberals and conservatives appeared to be growing. Nor could those factors explain why, after several years in which liberal girls and liberal boys endured roughly equal rates of depression, girls who identified as liberal had started having a much harder time.”


Some felt the girls who leaned left politically might just be experiencing a natural reaction to the many problems in society—growing sexual assaults against women, climate change, continued prevalence of misogyny and discrimination against women and girls. There is much to be depressed about in other words. After all it could hardly be surprising if those immediately affected by sexual violence or discrimination felt it most keenly. You might say it would be irrational not to be depressed or anxious or both. As Goldberg acknowledged “the notion that Trump’s America was a psychologically unhealthy place for young women resonated with me…”


Like Jonathan Haidt, she noticed the significance of 2012 for the rise of anxiety and depression among young women and girls. 2012 was the year of the shooting at Sandy Hook where very young school children were massacred. But it was also the time of Barack Obama’s re-election which no doubt cheered liberals. In 2013 the US Supreme Court extended gay marriage rights. It was happy times for liberals! Why would this lead to despair?

She consulted with Jean Twenge a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of the 2017 book iGen, about the deleterious psychological effects of social media.  Twenge had preliminary data that showed that liberal teenagers spent more time on social media spent more time on social media than their conservative peers. Her data also showed that boys tend to spend more time on screens than girls because in large part they spent more time on video games.

There was another interesting thing in her data. She had found that there were also increasing rates of loneliness among teenage girls. Would politics make them lonely? That seemed weird.

Remember the data I have already flagged in an early blog post. The recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) showed serious rises in adolescent girls experiencing greater feelings of sadness and hopeless, and almost a quarter made a suicide plan. As I mentioned earlier too, Jonathan Haidt’s data showed this could not really be attributed to the pandemic. The effects of Covid-19 were not that great.

 Some have emphasized the sexual violence against women. That is a big problem.  According to the CDC 14% of high school girls said they had been forced to have sex. Nearly 20% had experienced sexual violence. Taylor Lorenz writing in the Washington Post said the big problem was not phones but rather “the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic.” A feminist writer Jessica Valenti claimed that depression is a natural reaction to a misogynistic society. She wrote, “The real crisis, the problem that needs fixing, isn’t girls’ mental health… In the midst of all this violence and dehumanization, their depression is actually very reasonable!”

All of these are relevant and no doubt contribute to the problem but as Goldberg, Twenge, and Haidt all point out the data all shows that in about 2012 severe declines in mental health of young people were occurring in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Can that be a coincidence?  And remember that is exactly when the data also shows youth were turning to the new social media available on their phones!

As Goldberg summed up,


Technology, not politics, was what changed in all these countries around 2012. That was the year that Facebook bought Instagram and the word “selfie” entered the popular lexicon. As Twenge showed in “iGen,” in 2009, fewer than 60 percent of eighth-grade girls reported near-daily use of what were then called “social networking sites.” By 2014, more than 80 percent did”


And it wasn’t just that youth were fascinated by new technology. It really was changing their lives in profound ways. As Goldberg said,

Social media didn’t just cut into offline socializing. It precipitated a revolution in consciousness, in which people are constantly packaging themselves for public consumption and seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified. It’s not shocking that this new mode of existence would be particularly fraught for those in a stage of life where both fashioning the self and finding a place to belong are paramount.”


And then of course there is the scientific research itself. Working together, Professors Twenge and Haidt maintained a Google document in which they collected studies on social media and mental health and even permitted their critics to contribute to it. Jonathan Haidt said “55 studies in their review found a significant correlation between time spent on social media and mood disorders, compared with 11 that found little or no correlation. Other research suggests a causal relationship.”


One study in the American Economic Review had some amazing data about Facebook. It was introduced on various college campuses at different times and this study found that “The introduction of Facebook at a college had a negative impact on student mental health,” it found, presenting evidence that Facebook fostered “unfavourable social comparisons.”

 The evidence makes it very difficult to deny the serious adverse affect of social media. And politics can supercharge the problems.


A Uniquely Stupid Decade


A few years after he appeared on the Bill Maher show which I posted about yesterday, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, showed up on Amanpour and Co. expanding on his ideas about moral mistakes of the past. He was again explaining how social media was a problem but as always he did so in a very nuanced fashion and based his comments on scientific data. He is not free range pundits spouting off without restraint. Now don’t make nasty suggestions about me.


Haidt spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about the corrosive effects of new technology and how they have transformed the face of society, how they could be improved, and how drastically they have affected young people in North America. They talked a lot about an article he had written in the Atlantic with the engaging title “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” It actually sums up nicely a lot of his thinking. He is actually working on book on the subject that I am looking forward to reading.


Haidt has been researching what social media is doing to the minds of children, the behaviors of children, and how maybe that contributes to the larger issues he is thinking about. He wants to go beyond the effects of new technology, and consider the effects on society. His research has showed how kids were the canaries in the coal mine and the ill effects they suffered were also suffered by adults later on. He says social media helped to make the decade from 2010 to 2020 a stupid one. Sreenivasan called it “stupefaction.”


This is how Haidt summed it up on Amanpour & Co. on American PBS in 2022:


“…something changed, something fundamentally changed in the nature of this social universe, in the early 2010s. And everything got weird and kind of stupid after that. And we see it clearly — most clearly with that the kids. All kids have been on screens all the time. When I was a kid, when you were a kid, we watched too much television. We couldn’t take the television with us to school or into the bedroom, and something changed when kids got smartphones. And it’s not just the phone, it’s especially social media. The girls went right for the digital platforms. Instagram and Tumblr. The boys went more for YouTube and video games. And at the time, people said, well, you know, maybe this is good for them to have so much stimulation. But actually, what happened, beginning in 2012, was that rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide all began going up. I mean, it wasn’t a gradual thing, it was like they were sort of stable until 2012 and then, it’s like a hockey stick. They’re now — most of them are 100 percent higher, we kind of doubled it, of the rates of suicide, self-harm, depression and anxiety. So, that has really drawn me in because this, I think, was a national emergency. One that is tractable. And I’ve been studying this in depth to try to figure out what is the evidence that social media actually is a contributor, and there is a fair amount now.”


Haidt is sensitive to the fact that many people will shout out that analysts like him and others have cried wolf in the past about the evil nature of modern technology. As he said.


“…there’s a long history of moral panic, especially around technology. And I’ve been engaging with other psychologists who say I’m fomenting a moral panic. And they’re right to be concerned about that because most of the previous times we freaked out about technology, it hasn’t been actually anything. This time, we believe is different for a couple of reasons. The first is that there’s never been a hockey stick graph, like that that sudden upturn in mental health problems. So, this time, it’s different. Two is that the timing is exactly what you would expect for social media. It’s not a gradual thing. It’s not like something changed and then something else kind of changed. As soon as most kids get on social media and right then, the next very year, rates of depression and anxiety start going up. And then, a final kind of data is, the kids themselves say it. I mean, when we were growing up, we didn’t say, yes, you know, television is making us crazy. Mom and dad, you know, do something. But if you talk to the kids,  about Facebook, Instagram, they talk to the kids and guess what, they say, yes, Instagram is what’s making us depressed and anxious.”


I have been trying to show that there is some serious rot in western society. Not that it is all bad. But there sure is some bad stuff around. Any society that allows it is to some extent in serious decline even though there are many good aspects  to it to. I will continue on the this in my next post.


Coddling the Youth


Well before the recent reports by the CDC and the US Surgeon General,  about the shocking rise of suicides among youth, in 2018, Jonathan Haidt a social psychologist appeared on various television shows to flog his book about his ideas of what happened to American youth, particularly American teenage girls. One of those shows was Real Time with Bill Maher. The book is called The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and Bad Ideas are setting up a generation for Failure co-written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.

The book has its origins in an observation by Lukianoff that in 2013 for the first time it was students asking for protection from words and books and ideas and speech. All of which should be protected by the Constitution. Students had protested speakers before, but they never before medicalized it. They said that if this person says something I will be harmed or damaged and people will be traumatized. Therefore, schools like universities should protect them from hearing such speech. This was something new and when they put it in terms of safety to their university officials those officials had no choice but to respond.

As Haidt said, “This brought with it a whole package of innovations: micro-aggression training, safe spaces, trigger warnings, all this stuff appears from out of nowhere from around 2013 and 2014.”This made Haidt realize that this new generation of campus students are even more fragile than the millennials. And they wanted protection. Free speech be damned.

This drove both conservatives and liberals nuts, though liberals had a harder time deflecting these claims.

Haidt pointed out that kids born around 1995 had a very different childhood than children born before them. They don’t get driver licenses as much, they don’t drink as much, they don’t go out on dates, and they don’t have sex as much. What are they doing? They sit at home on their devices often with each other and this seems to be changing social development.” Haidt asserted, “As a result the rates of anxiety disorders, depression, self-cutting, and suicide are way, way up.”

This is particularly true for girls, and it all begins around 2011. In 2013 this generation entered colleges. And that is when these attitudes came out. In part this is because their parents insist on watching them all the time. Instead of helicopter parents they call it bull dozing parenting. They clear out all obstacles for their children. Their children are prepared to face no troubles at all. To put it bluntly, they have been coddled.

The main proposal made by Haidt and Lukianoff is anti-fragility. As Haidt said,

“Some things are fragile like a wine glass. You knock it over it breaks. Nothing good happens. If something is plastic, you knock it over nothing gets damaged. It doesn’t get better. But some things have to be stressed or challenged. Your immune system for example.  If you constantly protect your kid’s immune system, use bacterial wipes constantly, you are actually hurting them. Then you are preventing the system from getting the information it needs. The same thing is true with social life. If you protect your kids from being excluded, from being insulted, from being teased when they grow up it’s like the Princess and the pea. Any little thing they encounter on campus now becomes intolerably painful.”


It doesn’t help that parents try too hard to be their kid’s friends. They negotiated too much. They say, ‘Hey buddy isn’t it time to go?’ According to Haidt, “Kids need instruction and authority.”

This is a very new phenomenon so scientists don’t yet have a lot of data about it. Yet Haidt was prepared to say this in 2018 (later he went even farther and I will get to that in later post): “The preliminary data suggests that the anxiety, the fragility, the mental illness, that is across the country, across social class and across races. And that’s why social media use is starting so early. That seems to be the most likely culprit of several likely culprits.  Just that  week (Oct/2018) students at the Munk University Debates in Canada were demanding that Steve Bannon not be allowed to debate David Frum. That would be a travesty if the organizers gave in.  The Munk debates in Canada went ahead after the same debate had been cancelled in the US by The New Yorker magazine who chickened out because of the uproar.  I lost a lot of respect for the magazine then. I was a subscriber at that time.

Bill Maher had a good point about this. He said allowing the kids to shout down debates is like allowing the kids to take over in their homes. And, of course all of this gives fodder to the right who blame the left wing for the coddling. And there is some truth to that.  In civilization this authority should never be given up to the youth. You don’t stop giving them guidance. On this the right is clearly in the right, in my view.

In 2018 Haidt was worried about what was happening on line. The boys were mainly playing games on the Internet.  They may be killing people but they talk to each other and they co-operate. So, it is not all bad. But the girls were doing something else. They were putting something out and then waiting anxiously for comments from others. They are governed by social comparison and the fear of missing out. With boys bullying is mainly physical. With girls it is relational. So, girls can never get away from it. That is why the suicide rate for boys is up 25%, which is bad, but it is up 70% for girls! This is serious stuff.

And he had more to say about it later. I will get to that.


What is driving our youth to suicide?


While it is shocking that suicide is now the leading cause of death among young Americans, and the rates are rising among young women faster than among young men, the important question of course, is ‘what is driving our youth to suicide?’  And following that, ‘what can we do about it?’


As is customary, answers are hard to find. Theories are more abundant. Some have looked at the role of social media exposure, particularly with the use of smartphones. Some evidence suggests that girls who have had a faster rise in depression rates are experiencing more cyber bullying.  Some suggest this is because they use smart phones more than boys and text more than boys. The social connections so created are generally believed by mental health professionals to be more problematic than traditional forms of communication.

Drugs and alcohol are another popular culprit proposed by theorists. But there was no significant increase in the their use by young people during the time that rates of depression and suicide rose.

Some theorists have suggested the black box warnings the American Food and Drug Administration imposed in 2004 on things like anti-depressants have been counter-productive. That warning suggested to young people that the drugs could trigger suicidal thoughts, thus of course discouraging their use, even when they would have been helpful. According to Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times, “Within two years of the F.D.A. advisory, antidepressant use dropped by 31 percent in teens and 24 percent in young adults. Although antidepressant use recovered somewhat after 2008, it has remained below levels that would have been expected based on prescribing patterns before the warnings appeared.”

Friedman claimed that we need not wait until we know all the causes. We known enough, he said, that we know various psychotherapies and medications can be helpful. That might be true.  I am more concerned that we need to look deeper into the causes of this mental health crisis among our youth. But ultimately I agree most with the following statement and question he made: “Every day, 16 young people die from suicide. What are we waiting for?”

I think our failure to look seriously at this problem is itself a sign of serious civilizational decline. If we can’t look seriously and thoughtfully at such a problem at which problems can we look seriously?


Policing in a Broken Society

This past year in America 5 black  cops brutally killed a young black man for no apparent reason that has been revealed. Why did that happen?

Bill Maher was  right when he said on his television show earlier this year, “What’s going on, in my view, is that society is broken. We don’t educate people anymore, discipline is all broken down, families are broken down.” I agree this is a product of a broken society and then we ask the police to solve it.  Among all the other jobs they have to deal with they are expected to hold society together as it is shredded.  They are being asked to be psychologists, marriage counsellors, social workers advocates. As Bill Maher said, “No one ever calls the cops to tell them how well the marriage is going.” It is what I always said about schools. The principal never called us ot a team meeting to tell us how well the lads were doing in school.

How could that possibly work? Trust is gone. Guns sluice through American society. That doesn’t help. Violence is bred in the bone, particularly in America. What can the police do to mend this mess? As Bill Maher said, “They are the ones who get the slop of a broken society.”  And then they are asked to do far too much. And sometimes they contribute to it.

Yet, of course, the cops are also part of that broken society. Why those 5 black cops did what they did may always remain a mystery.  They just did it.   The cops perhaps were going through a divorce, or under pressure from their landlord to pay the rent, or their kids are trying drugs and disrespect their parents. What can the cops do about that?  They can break is about all they can do under impossible conditions.

There is a bigger question: where is all the rage coming from?  This is a vitally important question without any apparent answers. The rage is clearly out there, but where did it come from? The police like the rest of us are suffering from anxiety and fear. Every day they drive into harm’s way as part of their jobs.  The cops live in a society transfused with fear, anxiety, depression, and above all hate. It is a toxic mess that no Sunday School can cure.

Of course, we must always remember that a very high percentage of cops don’t resort to killing people out of frustration.  Most of them are just trying to do an honourable job as best they can.  Yet we must not accept it when they don’t do their best or abuse the trust given to them. Society is entitled to their best. Also, we must not be surprised when the police abuse the trust and fall short. It is going to happen. A broken society cannot deliver a perfect result. Fear, anxiety, depression and hate will never produce perfection. We will never get perfect policing until we get a perfect society, at which time we won’t need the police.

As Brett Stephens also said on Maher’s show, “Every day a cop in America is shot and killed. And police deserve a lot more respect than they get.”[2]

 I do not want to be taken to be giving in to fatalism. We must insist police do a better job. We must give them the support and respect they deserve, but not blind automatic acceptance of all they do.

 The real issue about cops is the same as the real issue of guns.  It is not inadequate laws that are the problem.  The real problem is the incredible rage in American society. In many ways it is a broken society. And that means that when the pieces of glass fly, people will get hurt. The rage let loose in a broken society is going to hurt someone. Whoever is in the way will get hurt. Police and guns just happen to be right on the edge of the tears in society. And we just have to look out.

Yearning to Belong


Hannah Arendt commented on how early supporters of Hitler in Germany demonstrated astonishing selflessness. She described that this way:

“The peculiar selflessness of the mass man appeared here as a yearning for anonymity, for being just a number and functioning cog, for every transformation, in brief, which would wipe out the spurious identification with specific types of predetermined functions within society. War had been experienced as that “mightiest of all mass action” which obliterated individual differences so that even suffering, which traditionally had marked off individuals through unique unexchangeable destinies could now be interpreted as “an instrument of historical progress.”


This desire to be part of a movement—to belong to a group—is of course of vital significance. Humans have strong desires to be part of groups.  Groups are desired to heal feelings of alienation and isolation. They are exhilarating. If you have any doubt about this go to an American football game. You will be convinced.  The feeling is that this is “us” against “them” and the excitement is palpable. These feelings are beyond reason. Cheering for your team has nothing to do with reason.  That is what the rapture must feel like.

Bakunin, the Russian anarchist expressed this feeling deeply. He said, “I do not want to be I, I want to be We.”

To us from afar this seems insane. It is insane. But it was real for those members of the movement. Will it be the same for modern authoritarians and their followers such Donald Trump’s Trumpsters? We cannot know that in advance, no matter what Arendt has told us about earlier mass movements, but it certainly must make us consider what comes next?

Social Connections


A lot people believe if they just have a little more money all will be well. Even extremely wealthy people tend to believe this. They all think they need a little bit more.

These people don’t realize that what makes people happy (as long as they have a basic minimum of money and resources) is genuine social connections.  This is what provides fulfilling lives, not more money. Most of us have plenty of money (except me, I need a lot more of course). Many of us have insufficient social connections, or at least insufficient quality of social connections. We should work on improving the quality of our social connections, less on earning more money. Those who have these are the lucky people. Not the wealthy people.