Recently the Wall Street Journal reported on how many young people are now seeking “accommodations” at work for their anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other mental conditions.
The article provoked a lively discussion split largely on age lines. While older people accuse Gen Z members of being “emotional hemophiliacs,” Gen Z members often say they have real, palpable “mental illnesses” and need extra time to complete their tasks and other accommodations.
It is true that Gen Z and millennials have grown up with the sordid health effects of GMOs, new pesticides, widespread endocrine disrupters, climate change, and the threat of mass shootings. But another factor is at play: drug industry spin.
This is the first generation that grew up believing that “major depressive disorder,” “generalized anxiety disorder,” ADHD, and bipolar disorder were as common as the cold. Once upon a time, the first two conditions were neither “mental illness” or chronic.
Needless to say, the elevation of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder to common, chronic conditions increased drug maker profits a thousandfold. (Some suggest the switch from benzodiazepines to SSRIs for the treatment of anxiety had less to do with benzo dangers than that SSRIs are taken every day.) The millions of young people diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder raise the same ethical questions.
How did the drug industry establish that everyone was “at-risk” of such mental conditions? For starters, a full seventy percent of DSM writers, the bible of mental illness, have reported financial relationships with drug companies. We all know about the vacations and speakers bureau stipends given to doctors to prescribe psych drugs. (At an APA meeting I attended as a reporter, a psychiatrist told me an SSRI drug maker flew her whole office to the Caribbean.)
But don’t underestimate the effect of direct-to-consumer drug ads which have told young people since they were born (as well as their teachers, parents, and health care professionals) that “mental illness” is as common as a cold.
Finally, drug industry spin and front groups have not only convinced young people that “mental illness” is widespread but that it is even “cool.” For example, a recent article in Glamour magazine depicted attractive young women who suffer from the “mental illnesses” of anxiety and depression. Campus-based groups post images of ebullient young people with the meme “This Is What Mental Illness Looks Like.”
More proof of the success of the everyone-is-mentally-ill message surfaces when a reporter exposes dangerous side effects to a medication or hidden drug maker money. “How dare you imply I am not mentally ill?” I have had angry readers write me, ferociously clinging to their mental illness identity. “You are not taking my drugs away!”
As a Gen Xer, I can remember when anxiety was transient, and depression was self-limiting. Neither was a chronic condition that required life-long medications, apparently to drug makers’ chagrin. Now, roughly a quarter of the population takes antidepressants, sometimes for decades. Moreover, many older people have been convinced they have “adult ADHD.” One could cynically say every adult suffers from adult ADHD since everyone’s concentration is improved on stimulants.
With children, medication stakes are even higher. A child who starts out on drugs for ADHD and related conditions will be a lifelong pharmaceutical customer. Teachers and parents may not know this–but drug makers certainly do.
Groups that proclaim anxiety and depression are chronic “mental illness” claim they are trying to remove the stigma but are actually selling mental illness to create greater drug profits. Sadly, some of the “accommodation” generation may have drunk the Kool-Aid.
Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and the author of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency.
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