Features, Women

Why Are Rates of Mental Illness Soaring Among Young Women?

Young women today do better at school than boys, they are more likely to go on to university, take more of the top jobs and, at least until they are thirty, earn more than men. Yet women are clearly not celebrating. In Britain, research published last week shone a light on the state of the nation’s mental health. It revealed an alarming increase in the number of women aged 16 – 24 reported to be suffering from a mental health condition. This echoes the findings of similar research conducted in Australia and America.

According to the latest statistics, almost 30% of young British women have a problem with their mental health. One in five suffer from anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder; this compares to 12 per cent of men the same age. The number of young women screening positive for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has trebled to 12.6 per cent in just seven years. Almost 20 per cent of women aged 16 – 24 report self-harming. For once, headlines that shout about a ‘crisis’ or an ‘epidemic’ appear justified.

Yet unlike their great-grandmothers, who may well have experienced the trauma of war and the hardship of rationing, before being corralled into stupefying domesticity, today’s young women have it good. They may not have a career, mortgage and baby all before the age of 25 but they perhaps have something even better: their freedom. Few young women today are constrained by either biology or social convention. The world is theirs for the taking — only a significant proportion are, it seems, too anxious, depressed and traumatised to take advantage.

Popular explanations for this sad state of affairs tend to focus upon the pressures young women experience to live through the prism of social media; the ubiquity of pornography and the need to look good at all times. But this risks slipping into tautology. It leaves unanswered why women respond to these pressures and don’t choose to ditch the eating regimes and mute their phones. We need to dig deeper.

Recent years have witnessed a growth in campaigns and awareness raising initiatives around the issue of mental health that are often aimed specifically at young people. From their earliest years in school many children, especially girls, adopt a vocabulary of ‘stress’, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. Lessons in mindfulness and meditation urge children to focus inwards and consider their personal emotional state rather than running around outside or exploring topics that will take them beyond their own internal monologue.

At university, poster campaigns advertise support services and urge students to look after themselves and each other. Soap operas, advertising campaigns and the Tweeted struggles of YouTube stars reinforce the message that young people are mentally vulnerable. As a result, young women are increasingly open about discussing their mental health. As one journalist reports: ‘My female friends and I have discussed, without shame, everything from depression to panic attacks to suicide attempts to miscarriages to cocaine-induced paranoia (drugs and alcohol use are so obviously a factor in mental illness) to eating disorders and OCD.’

Obviously, if someone is suffering from a mental health problem then they need to have the best help and support put in place as quickly as possible. But there comes a point where all the awareness raising creates more problems than it solves. We risk losing the ability to discriminate between the emotional ups and downs that are part of growing up on the one hand and serious conditions on the other. We tell children that feeling stressed or anxious from time to time is not normal but something they need special help to deal with.

We have successfully thrown away the stigma surrounding mental health but in the process we have normalised what were once serious and rare problems. For young women today there is no shame attached to discussing feelings of anxiety or depression. The opposite is the case and just as women rarely admit to feeling completely happy about the way they look, so too will few admit to being totally mentally robust and resilient. Young women who openly display their suffering are lauded for bravery and honesty. Stigma has been replaced with kudos.

In an age of check-your-privilege identity politics, mental health problems come to define people. They mark some individuals out as more fragile and special than everyone else. This vulnerability can be publicly displayed through self-inflicted scars; the practice of self-harming makes a young woman’s suffering visible to the world. Writing in The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir recognised the trend for girls to self harm, remarking that such actions were, ‘more spectacular than effective … she remains anchored in the childish universe whence she cannot or will not really escape; she is struggling in her cage rather than trying to get out of it.’

The cult of awareness raising offers one explanation as to why so many young women have come to see themselves as mentally ill. But there is more to it than this. Today’s children, labelled ‘cotton wool kids’ and ‘generation snowflake’, have been kept securely in their cages. Cosseted girls who never venture outside their own homes unaccompanied are likely, once they gain such freedom, to find the world a genuinely more scary place. For women these fears are no doubt exacerbated by feminist ‘rape culture’ scare stories.

An honest discussion about young women’s mental health problems is impossible while we blindly respect, rather than question, claims to suffering. It can seem as if the only response permitted is to demand more money for mental health services, more awareness raising and quicker access to treatment therapies. But this is an inadequate solution and will only exacerbate the scale of the current crisis even further.

Doctors are not immune to the awareness campaigns – indeed, most surgery walls are lined with posters. Rather than a shocking increase in mental health problems, perhaps we are instead witnessing a growing tendency for people to seek help when they experience feelings they have been taught to view as problematic and, at the same time, an increasing number of doctors ready to diagnose, medicalise and prescribe treatments for such normal human emotions. In this case, the only real surprise it that so few young women suffer.


Joanna Williams is education editor at Spiked and author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.

Filed under: Features, Women


Joanna Williams is education editor at Spiked and author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.


  1. Rachel Ann Gray says

    QUOTE: “We have successfully thrown away the stigma surrounding mental health…” Medical practitioners (nurses, doctors, auxilliary health care workers) are the absolute worst when it comes to stigmatizing the mentally ill. General practitioners will not run the standard tests when the patient has a mental illness, so the patient winds up in the emergency room a week later with a raging infection; or, in six months, with a full-blown cancer. The e.r. staff chide the patient because they “should have seen their g.p. months ago.” Nurses do not like to “waste their time” with mentally ill patients. Other health care workers will tell jokes and make fun of the “locked ward.” Stigma rages on and health care personnel are the worst offenders.

    Mental illness is poorly defined, and the hard sciences should really take over the research (especially the psychiatric arenas of endocrinology and neurology). About five percent of the population has a bona fide mental illness; it plagues them for most of their lives.

    People who are going through a rough patch are not “mentally ill”; the “rough patchers” are the ones who respond to standard treatment: see a therapist, take anti-depressants for a limited time, take up yoga (mindfulness/exercise/etc.) and eventually, heal and move on with life. People with mental illnesses can not heal with these social science based therapies; instead, they are written off as “treatment-resistant.”

    A serious, bona fide mental illness can not be successfully treated with mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or talk therapy, or any other “non-pharmaceutical alternatives” so beloved by social science proponents. Drugs are about all that help, and even then, the side effects can be worse than, or as bad as, the illness itself. Pharmacology is about all that a person can do at this point, for managing day to day living.

    • carry alane says

      agree one hundred percent…I gave up when told that the most difficult symptom of my mental illness (depersonalization) was untreatable. I have been through the drugs and they do not work, they make a person unable to function in life and their side effects are unlivable. I dislike the conclusion the author and SdB come to about self-injury; self-injury is a symptom of severe trauma, usually buried or ignored by the family (most likely because the family member doing the transgressing is powerful or economically important to the survival of the family) which the child expresses through self-injury. Once the cutter realizes they can trigger pain relief chemicals in the brain it becomes an addiction.

  2. Lloyd G says

    Yes of course, let us do something now..?

    Even though men and boys suicide rates (hence mental illness) have been at records for sometime, let us ONLY now take notice…

    …Because it’s girls..?

    yeah okay,

    Why don’t you start first with men, then look at the girls, men are killing themselves while girls are upset..?

    Surreal. Absolutely surreal how feminism has rotted everything, mostly families and children.

    Feminism has a lot to answer for, or should have, in a normal society

    • kerry alaine says

      It never ceases to amaze me the implication that feminists should solve the world’s problems while intelligent able bodied men sit around and complain about what feminists are not doing for males. Why not you, Lloyd? What is keeping you from bringing attention to these problems in a helpful way? Feminists cannot mother the entire world. It is time for men to step up and become real activists for their own causes, instead of whining and blaming feminists on the internet.

      • so then All the Feminists who accept Gov funding in the name of “equality” should give it back because they are actually a one sided womens political advocacy group? i am glad your comment has been up for as long as it has because it is exactly this kind of attitude (seen over and over) that will justify men going after the funding budget of feminism directly (they have already closed down DV shelters when they wouldnt share services with male DV victims).
        why dont men bring attention to these things? because men dont have 100 million yearly budget to do the same things feminism can do thats why. because men havent had an entire department of federally funded lawyers for 40 years to deal with their concerns like feminism has had..

        • Well said.

          It’s the ‘me me me’ culture, ‘I am entitled to everything because I am a girl’ and freedom a.k.a hookup culture which causes this in vain naive women brainwashed by feminists. Women in older generation were more empathetic and caring.

      • Yeah Nope says

        “What is keeping you from bringing attention to these problems in a helpful way?”

        Perhaps it’s because every time a man says he has a problem, women from one end of the globe to the other collectively shout “Shut-up whiny man-baby, your problems aren’t as bad as ours”, and the loudest voices are the feminists.

  3. Impressive numbers.

    Got to love the irony, too. The alarmists of “learned helplessness” cause “learned mental illness”. More debilitating. And they don’t learn a thing.

  4. By the way, I’d appreciate thoughts on whether sex differences in narcissism play a role in this. Self-harm being merely one element. It seems telling, that “consciousness raising” is rarely limited to the individual (woman), but directed at “raising” others’ (women’s/men’s) awareness of her.

  5. David says

    The last two paragraphs of your article are the ones that I find really compelling.

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  7. Marissa says

    “They may not have a career, mortgage and baby all before the age of 25 but they perhaps have something even better: their freedom. Few young women today are constrained by either biology or social convention. The world is theirs for the taking — only a significant proportion are, it seems, too anxious, depressed and traumatised to take advantage.”

    Being free to be miserable is no freedom at all. Clearly 30% of women are constrained by biology if they’re suffering from mental health issues. How can you not connect anxiety and depression with 1) too much freedom, 2) socio-economic restrictions on creating and supporting a family? Women are now “free” of social conventions and “free” of the ability to affordably form the bonds that provide the deepest happiness and consolation. Feminism has made women more miserable than ever and the only cure appears to be more feminism from these blind guides!

  8. “Feminism has made women more miserable than ever and the only cure appears to be more feminism from these blind guides!”

    Must be the famous “double blind”.

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  10. Williams’s argument is incredible, and it should be further unpacked sociologically. The cult of awareness can be situated in the social world through masculinities and femininities. Masculinity has discouraged men from addressing their feelings while femininity encourages women to talk about their feelings. The cult of awareness runs alongside a victim femininity where women are pre-emptively empowering themselves because they’ve been socialized to feel like victims.

    Victim femininities are everywhere. Marketing campaigns such as “you’re worth it” or “don’t say sorry” seem to try to emancipate women, but ultimately only remind the world of women’s vicitmhood. “Ban bossy” may teach many young women it’s okay to excuse their own abuse rather than teach them assertiveness. Spousal violence campaigns such as Walk A Mile in Her Shoes imply that domestic violence is a female experience, while authoritative research finds otherwise. Victim feminists are more concerned with creep-shooting men who want to sit comfortably on half empty trains because of men’s spatial “microaggressions.” The list goes on.

    This victim femininity is ignored by the intelligentsia obsessed with a dualistic hegemonic masculinity vs. emphasized femininity frame work. Even post-structuralists can’t acknowledge that privilege is not an identity possessed by individuals, but a situation that can change at any moment.

    At first glance, women empowering themselves seems quite feminist, so it’s ignored as a potential social problem. However, victim femininity could lead to perpetually unhappiness in the “victim’s” intimate and working relationships. They may feel entitled to demand more respect while giving very little themselves. They may wonder why others isolate themselves from her because she doesn’t see how her behaviour is abusive. We then have a petulant princess who cannot think about other people because she is too entitled to obsess about her own well-being. In fact, the idea of mental illness can be constructed by the perception of an individual who feels victimized at every turn. Perhaps thinking of yourself as a victim is a mental illness itself.

    my other comments on gender: https://quillette.com/2015/12/19/now-that-i-have-checked-my-male-privilege/

  11. Women, women, women.
    On and on they drone about every little grievance as if they’re the only life on the planet.
    My ex was like this, never happy and never will be.
    The selfishness to be this self involved! Never concerned with anything but women and getting unhappier by the day.
    Get out and help someone worse off than you. Maybe someone other than a woman! Gasp!

  12. Complaining about anxiety and social awkwardness is a hobby in the internet. No one wants to admit to being an optimist or an extrovert or even-tempered.

  13. Women Women Women, Against not only Men, also Environment:
    How much Garbage a Women It self Produce?
    Make up, Lipsticks, Creams, Eye brushes etc etc etc
    Clothes that they maybe will use few times, buying just for impulse like in these Zara, H&M.
    Shoes Fetiche they buy lot of shoes not using them.
    Bags of leather and plastics
    Magazins with almost 90% plenty of advertising.
    Fake Jewelry that the one is sold beside the pay Cash just to buy something else…
    Real jewelry.
    Higienic towels why can they just do like Grand mothers did and wash their stuff.
    I see they complain but they don´t see how harmful they are to environment.
    Buying things from child work, slave work, terrible work conditions for workers.
    They dont care cause they always play victim cause their are selfish from soul.

  14. Jim says

    I have been thinking about this article topic for 7 months after initially giving a hasty response in the comments. I would like to present a proper long-winded response:

    Williams’s brilliant argument should be further unpacked sociologically. The cult of awareness is situated in a culture that encourages women, more than men, to over-emphasize gendered victimization more generally. This is because of women’s long history of patriarchal oppression, and the ensuing political orthodoxy of liberation from it. Moreover, masculinity (and society) discourages men from addressing their feelings (e.g. “male tears”) while femininity (and society) encourages women to talk about their feelings (e.g. “empowering”). Women are taught to address their lived experiences as gendered survival while men are taught to address their gendered issues as personal problems.

    This cult of empowerment awareness exists in the fertile ground of WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies. Social scientist Ronald Inglehart states that post-war values and concerns have shifted into a culture motivated by self-fulfillment and personal expression because society as a whole no longer needs to worry about physical and economic survival. These WEIRDo societies can be described roughly as having post-materialist values.

    Post-materialism can emphasize the importance of the individual’s choice to pick and choose what is worthy of awareness. People can advocate for tolerance for people who don’t look like them, but often fail to be tolerant of people who don’t think like them. Activists who claim there are female and male brains may become outraged when someone implies men on average have higher sex drives than women by citing things like testosterone increases sex drive. A person may advocate that shaming individuals with mental health issues will make the issues worse, but nonetheless fat-shame people who end up staying overweight.

    As such, a cult of awareness of post-materialist femininity (CAPMF) over-emphasizes gendered concerns to promote an entitlement for women to empower themselves as much as they choose, regardless of how it affects others. This can include the selective acceptance of patriarchal norms when it benefits them or are unfavourable for men. Think of it like a self-rescuing princess syndrome: When the “kiss cam” at Knicks and Hawks games focus in on couples, some women expect a chivalrous performance from their male partners. But when the boyfriends don’t fulfill this expectation, the girlfriend may feel entitled to kiss the guy next to her as payback, with roaring approval from the crowd! In a snapchat world, self-image is everything and chivalry is far from dead.

    CAPMF is promoted through the marketing obsession of socializing women to think “I’m worth it” and “don’t say sorry.” Moreover, hashtag activism such as “ban bossy” is a form of victim-feminism mixed with a Thelma and Louise type empowerment widely promoted by politicians and Hollywood. Katy Perry, Madonna, and Jenny McCarthy have all (apparently) sexually attacked younger male contemporaries (or “cougar rape” as McCarthy joked in her case) as a part of their own “liberated” public performance of femininity. These double standards are systemic in music, television, movies, social media, and the like. This “have it all” branding is more about women’s self-fulfillment than women’s rights. It leads to a contradiction that women will be “liberated” by purchasing more beauty products. It seems that the whole point of telling women they are strong and independent is to remind them of their victim status and sell them a product that will liberate them. To claim “all women are beautiful” is to wrongfully connect the importance of beauty the female identity. It’s hard to separate the two when even Barbie is a feminist.

    A post-materialist cult of awareness from any group can eventually lead to individuals feeling entitled to demand respect in their personal and career relationships while being oblivious about returning it. This will affect long term relationships if one is petulant and entitled, especially if they don’t care to see it. Indeed, people see what they want. It’s easy for academics to claim there’s a problem with male attitudes about females when they don’t dare question the reverse. Gender privilege is not possessed by individuals of one specific ascriptive trait; it’s situational and can be lost and gained by all genders at any moment depending on context. The larger cultural apathy towards men regarding things like a gendered criminal prosecution gap, spousal violence, and the like show this.

    CAPMF is just that, a cult. Humans are not social animals like sheep or dogs; humans are religious animals who use sacred totems like constitutions, flags, morals, families, and human rights that are inherited through generations bind individuals to something bigger than egoistic desires. A post-materialist cult of awareness in any fashion can keep humans obsessed about egoistic desires.

    Adam Ferguson, an 18c Scottish enlightenment philosopher, had a warning for Britain. He saw the fall of the Roman Empire based on a moral corruption that put hedonism and individualism over the public good. Ferguson foreshadowed Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim on seeing a weakening of social bonds by a specialized division of labour and commercialization of everyday life in Britain/Europe. That warning could be extended to our own sacred dogma of egoism: post-materialism.


    hyperlinks and citations can be found through twitter @redtoryism

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