One of the most common things I see in what I’ll call the anti-mental health awareness agenda is an accusation of 'snowflakism'. Young people today are such lightweights compared to what people in previous generations had to cope with.
Of course there’s a lot of truth in this. A brief trot through the history books highlights a lot of very serious issues faced by society and more importantly, the individuals in society. Plagues, famines, wars, the Holocaust, the very struggle day to day simply to survive are virtually unknown today, and that’s a good thing. So is it fair to criticise today’s people because they struggle with ‘first world’ problems like anxiety and bullying rather than merely staying alive?
Well, no, not really. The thing is, it’s not just the nature of the challenges that’s changed. In 1943 Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, devised a hierarchy of human needs as a theory of psychological health. Although this has now been revised or even denied by later research, it still makes a lot of sense.
The lowest level is physiological, which are the fundamentals of survival. Food, water and sleep are in this level. Interestingly, so is sex (proving that we’re all just animals at the last). For a lot of human history, most people have been heavily focused on meeting these basic needs which leaves no time over for wondering about any of the others.
The next level up is safety, which includes health, physical safety and emotional and financial security. In modern society physiological and security needs go together, as for many of us it’s financial security that allows us to meet our basic requirement to eat food and sleep indoors. If you think about the major events that have challenged humans through history, they all represent threats to those two lowest levels of needs. And for the majority of us they’re basically a given. We almost all have somewhere to turn if money, food or shelter are short. That’s what gives us the time – and the capacity – to worry about the higher levels of the pyramid. Friends and family, a partner, mental stimulation and fulfilment, feeling good about yourself, having nice things (particularly those envied by others) and ultimately the answers to the question ‘why am I here?’
So it’s not because people today are feeble or pathetic that they struggle with things our ancestors never considered. It’s because they’re fortunate.
Previous generations would have thought about those things if they’d had the chance, but they were too busy surviving. If they hadn’t had to worry about that they’d have been as anxiety ridden and confused as we are. Those who didn't - mainly the wealthy and prestigious - focused on achievement and success, and worried they weren't getting them. So they are first world problems, but we live in the first world. What other kinds of problem would you expect to have?
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.