Internal vs. external and the rapid rise of mental illness



By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

If you are always rewarding your child with material things, he/she will never learn how to motivate themselves with internal rewards like pride. They also will never learn to value things because there are so many things and nothing is special.”  – Dr. Phil

As the mental health professionals at New Oakland Family Centers know all too well, mental illness has been on a steady, upward climb for no less than the last 50 years.

Today, by some estimates, a shocking five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago!

Dr. Jean Twenge is the author of “Generation Me,” in which she also refers to Millennials as the “Entitlement Generation.” She says they are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but are also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious. Based on questionnaires given students for the last 70 years, she writes, “Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the turbulent 1960s and the early ‘70s than they are today.”

She concludes that this troubling trend has much more to do with the way young people view the world than because of the way the world actually is.
Young people today have been inundated by advertisements and other messages implying that happiness depends on good looks, popularity, and material goods. It’s put their focus on “extrinsic” millenial confusionvalues rather than “intrinsic.”

Intrinsic goals have to do with one’s own development as a person—like gaining competency in a chosen endeavor and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals have to do with material rewards like status and income, and other people’s judgments. An annual poll of college freshmen shows that most students today list “being well off financially” as more important to them than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” The reverse was true in the 1960s and 1970s.

The resulting anxiety comes down to control: do I control my world (intrinsic) or am I controlled by circumstances outside of me (extrinsic)? The data indicates that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.

Shouldn’t we be doing something because it brings joy and accomplishment, or do we do it for the crowd’s applause, a parent’s approval, or society’s trophies?

Young people have 3 intrinsic needs:

  1. The need to feel competent.
  2. The need to feel related (connected with others).
  3. The need to feel autonomous.

From the “Self-Determination Theory” by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

As a kid, I had a balance of freedom and discipline. I had school, homework and chores, but after school I was free to play with my friends without adult supervision and sometimes for the entire day on weekends – as long as I made it home for dinner.

When I was alone, there was nobody pestering me on social media. I read, studied, had hobbies and built my own world based on values that weren’t materially based. I wasn’t obsessed with gathering “likes” or showing off where I’d been or what I’d done and didn’t have facebook friends or mass media throwing images at me of happy, beautiful people telling me what material goods I needed or how I had to look or risk being un-cool.

I sensed that I was in charge of my fate and was less likely to become anxious or depressed than kids today who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Here’s the example that pushed me to write about this topic: I’m at a golf outing last week with a number of Detroit media people. Afterwards, Jeff, a guy in my foursome, took a picture of me, former radio star Tom Ryan and sportscaster Ray Lane. He proudly posted it on facebook, writing, “Hey look at who I was with today!” Then one of his “friends” added this to a string of comments: “Years ago as a kid, my mother took me to a Channel 4 Christmas party and I saw Eli bawl out his kids in front of everybody. I haven’t liked him since.”

I stared at it as my anger began to boil.

Fact is, when I worked at Channel 4 from 1980 -’86, I didn’t have 2 kids. He was confusing me with someone who replaced me. But there it was on social media inciting a debate as to whether I was a good guy or a jerk. If I was 15 I would have been devastated. Now, I’m just reminded of how the world has changed – for the worse.

As parents, we must strive to instill in our children intrinsic values over the fleeting external illusions that have poisoned “Generation Me.”Feel free to call New Oakland. We have many therapists to help children understand this critical difference and to work with parents to steer their kids towards the intrinsic goals and rewards of personal growth.