Why mental illness is surging even in the world’s happiest countries

In Finland, named the happiest country in the world for 2018, suicide is responsible for a third of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds.

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In recent decades, economists studying life satisfaction have noticed a pattern – one that is remarkably persistent across different countries and cultures. Most people’s happiness levels begin dipping in adulthood, bottoming out when they reach their forties and fifties, before rising again.

This link between age and life satisfaction is known as the happiness curve. For discontented Generation Xers, it may provide relief to know that the midlife crisis is real but temporary, and that things will most likely get better. Young people might think rather differently, however. Could they feel any worse?

In both the US and the UK there has been a disquieting rise in depression, anxiety and other forms of distress among young people. Last April, a survey of more than 2,000 Britons aged 16-25 conducted by the youth charity the Prince’s Trust found that half had experienced a mental health problem, one in four said they felt “hopeless” and almost half felt they could not cope well with setbacks in life. The number of students dropping out of British universities because of mental health problems, and the number of campus suicides, have reached record highs. Similarly, a 2017 survey of 63,500 US college students found that 39 per cent had felt “so depressed it was difficult to function”. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of hospitalisations of suicidal teens doubled in America.

There are many economic and structural reasons why American and British teens might be struggling to cope. Inequality is rising, social mobility is stalling, competition for high-ranking universities and well-paid jobs is becoming fiercer. Yet this remains an insufficient explanation.

Last year, the Nordic Council of Ministers, an inter-parliamentary group comprised of representatives from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, as well as several autonomous islands, released a report titled In the Shadow of Happiness. The Nordic countries consistently top the United Nations’ world happiness rankings, which is often attributed to their egalitarianism, extensive welfare states and work-life balance. But the Council wanted to examine a population that is overlooked in glowing UN reports: in the happiest countries in the world, who is sad?

It transpired that the populations most likely to be suffering or struggling emotionally were the very old (those over 80) and the young. The report found that 13.5 per cent of 18- to 23-year-olds in the Nordic states rated their life satisfaction as less than six out of ten, which means they are either struggling or suffering. The primary cause of this discontent, the authors concluded, was the rising rate of youth mental illness. In Norway, the number of young people seeking help for mental illness increased 40 per cent in five years. In Finland, named the happiest country in the world for 2018, suicide is responsible for a third of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds.

In her 2017 book iGen, Jean Twenge, an American psychologist, attributed the sharp increase in mental illness among young people to the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media. She noted that in the US, youth mental illness rose steeply from 2012 onwards, the year that more than half the population gained access to a smartphone. Perhaps the use of smartphones helps explain the similar trends observed among Nordic teens.

Twenge’s research found that the more time teenagers spend on social media, the more likely they are to report feeling unhappy or depressed. One of her studies found that teens who spend more than three hours a day using electronic devices were 35 per cent more likely to present a risk factor for suicide (such as having made plans to end their life). If modern technology is a prime culprit, then researchers should be worrying about teens in poorer countries too, where smartphone use is spreading but people are often less likely to report mental illness.

Mental illness is complex and there is unlikely to be merely one reason so many young people worldwide are miserable – or any simple solutions. Banning smartphones and social media would be neither practical nor effective: research shows that social media can also increase happiness. Yet finding ways to protect young people from the harmful effects of digital culture could save lives – and might benefit miserable middle-aged people too.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail