The war at home: The attack on our mental health
During the State of the Union address, President Biden addressed Russia’s reprehensible invasion of Ukraine and he also spotlighted another war: the attack on our national mental health here at home. While we’re witnessing the horrors of devastating bombs and the cries of anguished victims in the military attack of Ukraine, there is a different kind of war being waged domestically; one with less artillery, but perhaps even more lethal — and, unfortunately, we’re losing. Young people are dying in record numbers.
Recent headlines have highlighted the rise of illicit drugs and the record levels of fatal drug overdoses — over 100,000 this past year — most under the age of 35. The main culprit is the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine and often laced into other recreational drugs. Just last week West Point cadets, on spring break in Florida, tried fentanyl-laced cocaine resulting in critical near-death scenarios. And yet, as young people continue to die, the assault continues unabated, as illegal fentanyl pours into our country from foreign labs in record quantities.
We’re seeing record rates of suicides as well. Shockingly, more than 150,000 people, mostly young adults, died in the United States in 2019 — before COVID — from psychologically driven “deaths of despair” (suicide, overdose, and alcoholism). Add the record rates of loneliness, anxiety, cyberbullying, depression, extremism, political unrest and mass shootings and you have the telltale signs of a society on the brink. COVID has only acted as kerosene on an already burning mental health fire that has greatly increased the lethal damage.
Why are our young people committing suicide and overdosing in record numbers? Because their mental health is under attack. And who is waging this war on our youngest and most vulnerable? Big Tech and their lethal toxin of social media are creating a generation of young people who are more empty, lonely, depressed, impulsive, self-loathing and suicidal.
Frances Haugen, a guest of the president at the State of the Union speech, and the “Facebook Whistleblower”, provided documents detailing Facebook’s own internal research showing that its subsidiary, Instagram, increased suicidality by 13 percent in British girls, 6 percent in American female teenagers and made eating disorders worse in 17 percent of teen girls struggling with disordered eating. Facebook’s research only reaffirmed what dozens of other peer-reviewed studies have shown regarding the adverse effects of social media on rates of depression and self-harm.
Yet Facebook, knowing the lethal harm that their platform was causing, refused to modify their algorithm; an algorithm that acts as a heat-seeking missile, targeting the weaknesses of our most vulnerable with toxic content to maximize engagement and, thus, profitability. As Haugen testified before the Senate earlier this year, Facebook should declare “moral bankruptcy,” because, as she told 60 Minutes, it has shown “it chooses profit over safety”.
Amazingly, there is bipartisan agreement regarding the devastating effects of illicit drug fatalities, young people’s deteriorating mental health, and the toxic effects of Big Tech and social media. Yet what is often missed is that these are not unrelated phenomena.
There is clear evidence of an increasingly unwell younger generation. Paradoxically, our digital natives that have been raised in the misleadingly named “social” media landscape have also been dubbed “the loneliest generation.” Yet rather than providing genuine connection, social media offers an illusory form of counterfeit connection that reduces the development of sanity-sustaining in-person friendships. Digital connection is, in fact, human disconnection. As a hard-wired social species, we need these genuine relationships along with a sense of meaning in our lives to provide a sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, following social influencers and chasing “likes” are not the ingredients for an intrinsic sense of value that can imbue people’s lives with purpose.
The constant immersion in polarizing social media platforms has also changed the architecture of our brains and the way that we process information in a way that’s inherently pathological and unhealthy and undermines the potential for independent critical thinking — which is an essential human trait. As social media has swallowed up our world, we’ve developed a type of societal binary black-and-white thinking which is the opposite of nuanced critical thinking; after all, it’s hard to find nuance in 144 characters or never-ending polarization echo chambers. Unfortunately, not only has this polarizing binary thinking accelerated our current cultural clash and political divide, but it’s had profound clinical implications, as binary thinkers who can’t see shades of grey are more reactive, less resilient and primed toward increased impulsivity and fragility — all of which are symptoms in many mental health disorders.
As the importance of making treatment available has been hailed in the recent and current administrations, it is vital to note that treatment alone would be akin to fighting heart disease with only stents and surgical interventions, without critical preventative and lifestyle changes.
If we are to win this war and reclaim the mental health of our young people and the direction of our society, we need to understand the underlying root causes and address them; we need to ameliorate the social media toxin to help mitigate the drive for chemical toxins and work towards creating meaningful supportive relationships that have been the defining foundation for human well-being for thousands of years. Treatment is great, but oftentimes it is too little and too late.
It is time to go on the offensive in this war on young people’s mental health and address the endless and corrosive social media platforms with antitrust legislation as well as critical public and school information campaigns, while also increasing our efforts to stop the flow of the most toxic street drugs as we increase access to behavioral health for those who need it.
Vanila Singh M.D., MACM, is an associate professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. Singh is the immediate past Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is a frequent contributor to FOX Business News, MSNBC and other major media outlets. Additional editorial works can be found in the Washington Post. She can be followed at @VanilaSingh
Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is the founder of Omega Recovery in Austin, a former clinical professor at Stony Brook Medicine in New York, and the author of the bestselling book “Glow Kids.” His latest book “Digital Madness” will be out in September. He has been featured on CNN, ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America and Fox News.
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