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You Are Not Your Brain

Does the current discourse on mental health need to change?

Mental health has been a “hot topic” for a number of years now, especially in relation to social media use and in light of rising suicide rates in the U.S. We recently covered General Surgeon Vivek Murthy’s comments on the dangers of children using social media. It’s increasingly apparent that excessive screen time is linked to poorer mental health, low self-esteem, and negative self-assessment among teenagers.

More broadly, the terms “anxiety” and “depression” are used in common parlance. The mental language has become basically ubiquitous. While depression and anxiety are certainly rising, and the issue should be treated with great care and compassion, writer Lucy Foulkes thinks that some teens experience feelings of being left out if they don’t suffer from mental illness. She writes,

There’s no line in the sand between the people who experience “normal” anxiety and those who experience “clinical” anxiety. It’s a gradually changing spectrum with a thousand shades of gray. But this point gets lost in the public conversation. Campaigns and social media posts just churn out the message that there’s this problematic thing called anxiety, and so people start interpreting all the lower-level stuff as symptomatic of a disorder. That’s unhelpful in itself — some people find it scary and stigmatizing to believe they might have a mental disorder. But I think it might be worse than that: interpreting common difficult emotions (like anxiety) might actually bring on these symptoms, in a self-fulfilling manner.

-Lucy Foulkes, What if youth mental health awareness efforts are backfiring? (statnews.com)

Worrying if you might have a personality disorder for feeling somewhat anxious on occasion can paradoxically invoke more serious anxiety. Foulkes continues,

One parent told me that their teenage daughter says she feels left out because she’s the only one among her friends who doesn’t have anxiety or depression. It might be that we have so encouraged destigmatizing of mental health problems that we have swung too far the other way, and these labels have become desirable for some teens. This isn’t helpful for anyone, not least those with debilitating mental illness, such as schizophrenia, who continue to be left out in the cold.

Foulkes mentions that when people are told they have high blood pressure, even when they don’t, they tend to later report actual symptoms to the doctor. She and her colleagues hypothesize that something similar might be happening in the mental health discourse and want to examine the issue more closely.

While Foulkes doesn’t comment on social media in detail, apps like TikTok are feeding the flames. We recently covered TikTok’s tendency to feed teenagers a “diet of darkness.” When a user interacts with one video (that covers something like combatting anxiety) the algorithm exponentially feeds them more similar content. Eventually, it turns into a rabbit hole, and users may be convinced that something is deeply wrong with them even when they are normal.

I like to go back to an article by Robert J. Marks, who believes that the solution to teens’ struggles with mental illness is a recovery of unconditional love. He writes,

Social media portrays a world where everybody is happy and having a good time. Everybody, of course, except for you. There must therefore be something wrong with you. You are a loser. Teenage boys without girlfriends feel like social freaks. One in three teenage girls who use social media suffers from  body image issues.  

-Robert J. Marks, The Asbury Revival and the Cure for TikTok | Mind Matters

It’s important for people to know that they are not reduceable to their mental illnesses; we are not our brains. There are ways we can find help and differentiate our identities from these mental difficulties and find healing.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

You Are Not Your Brain