Last month, James Freeman, assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, wrote a piece highlighting the mental health toll that progressive politics seem to have on young people.
According to a recent study released by the CDC, the mental health of young people—and especially young girls—has grown substantially worse over the past decade. Another study by two Columbia University epidemiologists suggests that it is young people in particular who identify as political liberals and progressives who are prone to poor mental health.
The Columbia report states that “Depressive affect (DA) scores increased for all adolescents after 2010, but increases were most pronounced for female liberal adolescents.... These findings indicate a growing mental health disparity between adolescents who identify with certain political beliefs. It is therefore possible that the ideological lenses through which adolescents view the political climate differentially affect their mental wellbeing."
Of course, the mental health risks, particularly for young people, from social media and other now-ubiquitous technologies have been much discussed and no doubt contribute to the increased depression among all adolescents. But something seems to be particularly affecting those who identify with the political left.
This should not be entirely surprising for at least two reasons.
First, because its founding myth presumes that the past and present is something to be overcome in the service of a liberated future: Progressive liberalism is by nature keyed to see the things that it interprets as problems in the world. It aims at nothing less than changing the world, which is to say, changing reality itself. In other words, in its basic approach to the world, progressive liberalism has little room for gratitude for things as they are given. More than that, certain concepts associated with progressive ideology, such as so-called “microaggressions,” explicitly encourage those who identify with the ideology to scrutinize, magnify, and catastrophize virtually every social interaction.
Common sense—and psychological science—suggest that gratitude is an important component of happiness and mental health. In this sense, it should be little surprise that those who adhere to an ideology designed to undermine gratitude for the existing state of things suffer increased anxiety, alienation, and depression.
Second, the idea that reality itself must be changed is built on the assumption that reality is susceptible to being changed. This, in turn, is rooted in the postmodern assumption that reality is entirely socially constructed such that it is able to be wholly remade at will, and that all social structures and limits—and problems—are, in principle, changeable. Structures and limits, on this account, are not natural but arbitrary and, therefore, are expressions of power dynamics, not reality. Because arbitrary limits enforced by power are presumptively unjust, there is an imperative to oppose and overcome them.
But denying reality is a dangerous enterprise, and is, of course, linked to many mental health issues culminating in psychosis. And yet, the postmodern ideology that underpins much of progressive liberalism goes one step further, in many cases denying even that there is such a thing as “reality” that is stable and knowable, as opposed to artificial and arbitrary. Michel Foucault, the progenitor of much postmodern thought, goes so far as to deconstruct the concept of mental health itself, seeking to show that it is little more than a mask for power dynamics.
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Whatever the merits of questioning the therapeutic medicalization of society—and there are some—deconstructing the line between madness and sanity blurs the contours of reality and undermines the idea that reality imposes real limits on human being.
Given this, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that those who identify with modern leftist politics suffer disproportionately with mental health issues.
While there are no easy solutions, a return to a confident realism in American thought and politics would be a salutary start toward recovering a culture of sanity.