Ed West

Is America’s ‘despair epidemic’ about to arrive in Britain?

Is America's 'despair epidemic' about to arrive in Britain?
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However stressful and bad things get for a parent of young children, there is always one thought that puts it all in perspective - just wait until they're teenagers and they're calling you up at 3am asking for a lift from a nightclub in New Cross. So reports like this one, showing that one in four adolescent girls suffer from depression, are bound to add to that gnawing feeling of dread.

Firstly the caveats - any statistic that claims '1 in such and such' suffers from this, or is a victim of this, should be treated with scepticism. Depression is also an ill-understood term, a medical diagnosis widely applied by non-medical experts. But it's safe to say that a lot of people are unhappy, and in particular a lot of young women.

The 'paradox of declining female happiness' is a well-attested fact of modern life, although the causes are much debated.  The most obvious factor must be the pressure to have it all, both a successful career and motherhood, something which is beyond the means of so many people and leaves them feeling like failures.

But that hardly explains growing anxiety among girls, which compared to boys is less picked upon by parents. That teenage girls suffer from depression more than boys should not be a cause of surprise - women suffer from the illness more than men at every age, and in every society on earth, one of the possible reasons being to do with testosterone.

That parents are more likely to notice it in boys is probably due to males exhibiting more obvious behavioural problems, while victims of depression or extreme anxiety are sometimes able to mask the inner turmoil. But the proportion is still alarming, and from a societal point of view what makes it more so is the hugely disproportionate number of children from low-income homes reporting symptoms.

To take a comparative example, compare the rates of 'Deaths of Despair' for college educated and non-college educated white Americans.

Something is clearly deeply wrong, and since America is usually only a few years ahead of us on most social trends we should expect the Despair epidemic to really take effect in Britain soon.

Numerous commentators have linked America's huge rise in early deaths with the decline of organised religion, in particular the sense of hope and community faith brings.

And perhaps just as importantly religion also offers some respite from the relentless competitiveness of life, since it emphasises the importance of acceptance and dignity. Never mind if he isn't rich or famous or especially talented, a man doing an ordinary, honest job and looking after his family can hold his head up - so says the cultural background chatter found in Christianity. But where the cultural background noise is basically the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, of rich, idiotic celebrities living a better life than you - and at a time when good working-class jobs have eroded - the cultural protections against intense competition are gone.

Competition is a similar problem with teenagers, in particular the most brutal form of all, intrasexual competition, especially among females.

As Mary Wakefield wrote recently,

 A 21st-century girl spends just as much of her day applying make-up as did the most painted Victorian, and more time preening for the camera than any starlet. We think of wolf-whistling as outdated macho behaviour. Yet below the radar of most parents, an old-fashioned beauty pageant is under way every day on Instagram. The girls parade themselves, the boys ogle and comment as they’ve done for millennia. Teen girls on social media groom each other just as female chimps do. They compliment each other on their selfies back and forth: ‘Wow! You’re unreal! Gorg!’ ‘No you are!’ It’s a brave new gender–fluid world but even the unspoken rules of straight dating seem eerily retro. Girls don’t ask boys out; they just look pretty and wait. 

As the father of two happy girls in their first decade this fills me with an intense feeling of sadness; I don't want them to feel like they have to take part in this, and who knows, maybe they won't. But the cues are already there in the background, the hypersexualised starlets all subliminally giving the same message, that if you can't turn a boy on, then you're a failure.

Now I'm a conservative, so I believe competition to be a good thing, but it also comes with costs. Intrasexual competition in particular can be brutal, far more than the battle of the sexes, but it's largely ignored because mainstream feminism seems to deny its existence.

The more economic and social freedom a society has, the more that inequalities will arise between the haves and the have-nots, the gifted and more slow-witted, the self-controlled and the impulsive; likewise the more sexual freedom people have, the more inequality within the sexes, so that far more millennials have promiscuous sex lives than in the previous generation, but far more also have no sex life.

As Michel Houellecbecq once put it, a world in which sexual pleasure is a pre-eminent good is one 'in which the gap between haves and have-nots is magnified along a new dimension.' Not exactly a recipe for a happy one either.