How Millennials Became Generation Therapy

20-somethings are ditching the British stiff upper lip and talking about their mental health

How Millennials Became Generation Therapy

by Chemmie Squier |
Published on

The British stiff upper lip has a lot to answer for. Thanks to our society’s entrenched social stigma of talking about what’s really going on in our heads, our mental health, as well as our attitudes towards it, have suffered. Compared to America, where getting therapy (or counselling; I'm taking them to mean the same thing in this instance) is seemingly the de rigueur. It’s not even necessarily that Americans undergo more speaking therapy (the available stats look to be quite similar) but what is key, is the openness. Keeping personal situations out of the public domain is of course every person's prerogative, but this inability to talk openly about subjects like mental health, is hurting us from the inside out. It's also baffling that any stigma remains when you consider that at any one time 17% of adults and 10% of children are affected by mental health issues and, according to Mind one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year. On top of that, nearly half of all ill health among people under 65 is due to mental health problems.

The good news is that the situation does seem to be changing – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Attitudes Survey found that in 2004, 60% of people agreed that ‘people today spend too much time dwelling on their emotional difficulties’, and in 2014 this has dropped to 39%. This is promising and I think it's fair to say that millenials are pioneering this change, not least because they’re getting more therapy themselves themselves. Whilst the older generation might be inclined to think of therapy as self-indulgent fluff, us younger ones are realising the value in taking care of our minds. Louise Chunn, founder of the website Well Doing, a therapist directory and mental health resource, agrees that there’s been an increase of millennial interest in mental health issues. ‘We get a lot of [website] traffic when we do things about millennial anxiety or depression, things to do with social media, social anxiety, panic attacks… Things that are certainly more talked about by younger people,’ she tells me. What’s more, she estimates that millennials make up two thirds of Well Doing users. Psychotherapist Joshua Miles backed this up, telling me that his client base is predominantly between 20-25 years old. ‘In older generations there is still a stigma of mental health and not talking about it so I definitely think there is something in millennials who are more open to it. I think it is something about the age and the time you were born,’ he tells me. That’s not to say older people aren’t getting therapy – the BACP found the biggest users to be 35-44 – but what’s key, is the discussion that’s being facilitated by the younger generation. He goes on, ‘Don’t get me wrong there’s a lot of people of the millennial age who don’t get it either and think the same thing, but more often than not, that would be less the case.’

It's not a surprise that millennials are helping to open up the dialogue around mental health issues and talking therapies. We’ve grown up with online presence being part of our social DNA so naturally we feel more comfortable sharing intimate details of ourselves online. Our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles beam out our personal information meaning that the leap to begin discussing personal issues like mental health doesn’t seem so great. It’s this growing openness and the shared feelings that are helping the profile of issues like these be raised.

Society is often quick to focus on the negative impacts of the internet (of which there are many, I don’t deny) but it does a whole load of good too. For this article I put a call out on Twitter to speak to young women about their experience of therapy and I was taken aback by the public response – young women were publicly claiming their experiences of therapy, and I felt incredibly proud. People out there want to talk about it, and they are, without, or certainly less of, the old sense of shame. Sara, 20, has had CBT therapy for anxiety and praised the internet for helping shake the stigma of mental health. ‘I feel like social media has had such a positive impact on the destigmatising of mental health issues. Seeing people I admire like bloggers or friends talking about issues like anxiety definitely makes it easier to talk about it,’ she tells me. ‘Since I've spoken about it more amongst my friends I've discovered quite a few of them have experienced similar issues themselves.’

Then there’s prominent social figures: celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham and Cara Delevingne, to name but a few, have spoken publicly open their struggles with illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Whilst we often cringe away from celebrities, this openness undoubtedly helps create a world in which these struggles are discussed. But more than that: they’re accepted. These upfront and personal accounts mean that millennials are responding by using their own voices. Louise agrees, ‘In the media there’s been a much more positive message. Many interviews with celebrities show that it’s incredibly common now; so many of them will mention them having “spoken about my problems and feeling so much better for it now,” or admitting they’ve had long-term therapists. I think that’s giving people a better perspective on it.’ Abbie, 21, who has therapy for anxiety, backed this up. ‘In the last few years more and more people seem to be discussing how mental health affects them, and what help they're receiving. I think influential figures in the media have helped this hugely in lots of ways,’ she tells me. ‘I feel like society as a whole is becoming very far more accepting of mental health issues and associated therapies, and there seems to be more empowerment for those suffering.’

Add popular culture to this, like HBO’s Girls which has showed Hannah Horvath and her struggle with OCD and Netflix series Love which consistently highlights millennial mental health issues, and it’s plain to see that, gradually, a shift is taking place. Other studies like charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness’ State Of Stigma survey (as part of their Time to Change campaign) found that 57% of respondents believe it’s easier to talk about mental health problems than in previous years, proving a change in attitudes. Plus, the BACP reports that the number of people who have consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist has risen from 21% in 2010 to 28% in 2014.

The fact that, as a generation we’re definitely not cash rich yet many of us are willing to invest money, and time, into improving our mental health shows just how important we’ve come to view this. ‘People are beginning to view their mental health as just as important as physical health,' Joshua tells me. 'Now it’s “‘if I pay a certain amount for a gym membership what’s the difference in me paying someone to allow me the space to think about my mind?” It’s self improvement.’ When I ask Joshua if he thinks the dialogue around mental health has opened up in recent times he answers with ‘100%, definitely’. This is encouraging.

Whilst it’s clear that attitudes and perceptions of mental health are changing, there’s still a long way to go to ensure that those suffering receive the help they need. According to Mind’s We Need To Talk Campaign one in five of those surveyed has been waiting over a year to receive treatment and one in 10 has been waiting over two years, which is why they’re calling for the NHS to ‘offer a full range of evidence-based psychological therapies to all who need them within 28 days of requesting a referral’. What’s more, their follow up We Still Need To Talk report found that 40% of people had to request psychological therapies rather than being offered them by the NHS, 50% felt they hadn’t received enough sessions and 58% weren’t offered a choice of therapies. Resources are yet to catch up with demand and, quite frankly, it’s not good enough.

Not everyone, it seems, is as happy as they should be about this increase in awareness. In an interview with the Independent Phillip Hodson, a psychotherapist from the UK Council for Psychotherapy said ‘Of course it's a good thing that there are more resources to assist people with problems, but we don't want to counsel everything that moves. There are people who need to understand that life does come with some inevitable unhappiness and that bereavement, for example, is something you can't go round but through.’ He also addressed the Americanisation of society and said that ‘It's a good thing that more people who need it are accessing therapy, but what we don't want is a culture that adopts therapy as a religion.’

This, to me, seems exactly like the kind of opinion we don’t need. Surely seeking help in any capacity can only be a positive thing? And whilst people should take time to consider their personal situation and decipher the best kind of therapy for themselves (Well Doing have a questionnaire to help with this), what’s wrong with it becoming a ‘religion’ of sorts? Therapy as the religion of millennials sounds like a pretty positive concept to me.

For far too long resilience and a stoic manner have been seen as societal badges of honour, and finally, this front is crumbling and we’re finally making progress. It’s not necessarily about everyone waxing lyrical about their therapy sessions – although that’s the person’s prerogative – but the feeling that society is set up in such a way that it would be OK if someone did. Things are by no means perfect, but they’re improving and it would be wrong to ignore that.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

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Follow Chemmie on Twitter @chemsquier

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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