What’s going on with teen mental health?

As I think I mentioned, I originally had this as part of quick hits, but it’s just so good and the quick hits was already overly long, so I wanted to make it it’s own post.  

 An absolute must-must read from Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest” (it also incorporates a great Matt Yglesias piece).  I’d strongly recommend reading the whole piece, but here’s the parts I found the most compelling:

Greg is prone to depression, and after hospitalization for a serious episode in 2007, Greg learned CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen “cognitive distortions,” such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causes depression, as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is acurefor depression. 

What Greg saw in 2013 were students justifying the suppression of speech and the punishment of dissent using the exact distortions that Greg had learned to free himself from. Students were saying that an unorthodox speaker on campus would cause severe harm to vulnerable students (catastrophizing); they were using their emotions as proof that a text should be removed from a syllabus (emotional reasoning). Greg hypothesized that if colleges supported the use of these cognitive distortions, rather than teaching students skills of critical thinking (which is basically what CBT is), then this could cause students to become depressed. Greg feared that colleges were performing reverse CBT

Greg and I decided to expand our original essay into a book in which we delved into the many causes of the sudden change in campus culture. Our book focused on three “great untruths” that seemed to be widely believed by the students who were trying to shut down speech and prosecute dissent:

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

2. Always trust your feelings

3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

Each of these untruths was the exact opposite of a chapter in my first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which explored ten Great Truths passed down to us from ancient societies east and west. We published our book in 2018 with the title, once again, of The Coddling of the American Mind. Once again, Greg did not like the title. He wanted the book to be called “Disempowered,” to capture the way that students who embrace the three great untruths lose their sense of agency. He wanted to capture reverse CBT. 

glesias tells us what he has learned from years of therapy, which clearly involved CBT:

It’s important to reframe your emotional response as something that’s under your control:

  • Stop saying “so-and-so made me angry by doing X.”

  • Instead say “so-and-so did X, and I reacted by becoming angry.”

And the question you then ask yourself is whether becoming angry made things better? Did it solve the problem? 

Yglesias wrote that “part of helping people get out of their trap is teaching them not to catastrophize.” He then described an essay by progressive journalist Jill Filipovic that argued, in Yglesias’s words, that “progressive institutional leaders have specifically taught young progressives that catastrophizing is a good way to get what they want.”

Yglesias quoted a passage from Filipovic that expressed exactly the concern that Greg had expressed to me back in 2014: 

I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. 

I have italicized Filipovic’s text about the benefits of feeling like you captain your own ship because it points to a psychological construct with a long history of research and measurement: Locus of control. As first laid out by Julian Rotter in the 1950s, this is a malleable personality trait referring to the fact that some people have an internal locus of control—they feel as if they have the power to choose a course of action and make it happen, while other people have an external locus of control—they have little sense of agency and they believe that strong forces or agents outside of themselves will determine what happens to them. Sixty years of research show that people with an internal locus of control are happier and achieve more. People with an external locus of control are more passive and more likely to become depressed.

[Aside to mention, you will not be surprised that I am very high on internal locus of control]

There are at least two ways to explain why liberal girls became depressed faster than other groups at the exact time (around 2012) when teens traded in their flip phones for smartphones and the girls joined Instagram en masse. The first and simplest explanation is that liberal girls simply used social media more than any other group. Jean Twenge’s forthcoming book, Generations, is full of amazing graphs and insightful explanations of generational differences…

But I think there’s more going on here than the quantity of time on social media. Like Filipovic, Yglesias, Goldberg, and Lukianoff, I think there’s something about the messages liberal girls consume that is more damaging to mental health than those consumed by other groups. 

We see something like the Gimbrone et al. pattern in which it’s the liberal girls who depart from everyone else, in the unhealthy (external) direction, starting in the early 2000s. 

Percentage of liberal and conservative high school senior boys (left panel) and girls (right panel) who agree with the statement “Every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.”

Figure 4. Percentage of liberal and conservative high school senior boys (left panel) and girls (right panel) who agree with the statement “Every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.” From Monitoring the Future, graphed by Zach Rausch.


It sure looks like the liberal girls are getting more external while the conservative girls are, if anything, trending slightly more internal in the last decade, and the boys are just bouncing around randomly. But that was just for this one item. We also found a similar pattern for a second item, “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.” (You can see graphs of all 8 items here.)..

I believe that the loss of free play and self-supervised risk-taking blocked the development of a healthy, normal, internal locus of control. That is the reason I teamed up with Lenore Skenazy, Peter Gray, and Daniel Shuchman to found LetGrow.org.) 

External Locus of Control (USA 12th graders). Locus of Control has shifted slightly but steadily toward external since the 1990s.

Figure 5. Locus of Control has shifted slightly but steadily toward external since the 1990s. Scores are on a 5-point scale from 1 = most internal to 5 = most external. 

Once again, and as with nearly all of the mental health indicators I examined in a previous post, there’s no sign of trouble before 2010. But right around 2012 the line for liberal girls starts to rise. It rises first, and it rises most, with liberal boys not far behind (as in Gimbrone et al.).

Self-derogation scale, averaging four items from the Monitoring the Future study. Scores rise first and highest among liberal girls.

Figure 6. Self-derogation scale, averaging four items from the Monitoring the Future study. Graphed by Zach Rausch. The scale runs from 1 (strongly disagree with each statement) to 5 (strongly agree). 

In other words, we have support for Filipovic’s “captain their own ship” concern, and for Lukianoff’s disempowerment concern: Gen Z has become more external in its locus of control, and Gen Z liberals (of both sexes) have become more self-derogating. They are more likely to agree that they “can’t do anything right.” Furthermore, most of the young people in the progressive institutions that Filipovic mentioned are women, and that has become even more true since 2014 when, according to Gallup data, young women began to move to the left while young men did not move either way. As Gen Z women became more progressive and more involved in political activism in the 2010s, it seems to have changed them psychologically. It wasn’t just that their locus of control shifted toward external—that happened to all subsets of Gen Z.  Rather, young liberals (including young men) seem to have taken into themselves the specific depressive cognitions and distorted ways of thinking that CBT is designed to expunge.

Okay, I’ll stop. You should read it. And right or wrong, these are really important ideas that our society needs to grapple with.

I will say, from my perch getting to spend a lot of time with 18-22 year olds over the past two decades, most of this strikes me as spot-on.  We absolutely have been teaching anti-resilience to this generation (and though I try, I will not plead “not guilty” as a parent) and they are paying the price for it. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

6 Responses to What’s going on with teen mental health?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Re: Locus of Control and the idea that internal locus is best for happiness.
    Doesn’t it all depend on how that locus was built? Internal locus come from brain washing by strict and ideological parents or it can be the result of independent thinking of the individual as she/he approaches adulthood.
    God bless you, David Riesman, etc. wherever you are.

    • Steve Greene says:

      How one develops internal vs external locus of control is surely worth more study. What’s clear enough is that it is way better to be more internal and that it is at least somewhat malleable.

      • R. Jenrette says:

        I read “The Lonely Crowd” as a 20 year old. It taught me a lot about who I was. As I followed our culture over the years, much of it showed me over and over again how prescient Riesman and group were.

  2. Nicole K says:

    A decade of undiagnosed narcolepsy pretty much destroyed my life. I had 38 F grades on my undergraduate transcript (233 credit hours attempted 136 hours earned, graduated with undergraduate GPA of 1.465.) In fact I believe that I failed more undergraduate courses than any other student who actually graduated from NCSU. I would never have been able to have the professional career I have now if I had allowed myself to believe that “Every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.”

  3. Nicole K says:

    Yeah, a lot of it. But I think I have always had a pretty strong internal locus of control too. I knew dwelling on how bad things had been in the past wasn’t useful and self pity would not get me out of the mess I was in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: