I’m having an anxious day today. Even though I’ve followed the routine that keeps my fear at a manageable level, the tide of dread is getting higher and higher and I’m starting to feel very scared that I will be swept away by it. I am really, really worried about being late for a beauty appointment in a few hours’ time – not a work meeting or anything medically necessary, but something that will take less than 20 minutes and cost 20 quid. I’m fizzing with fear about a work project I have promised to deliver next Monday. I’m twitching because, despite my best intentions, every hour of December now seems to have a diary entry to go with it. I can’t shake the sense that I’ve promised to do something and I haven’t delivered, because I don’t remember what it is. “You’re going to let everybody down,” says my brain. “You’re a failure. If you make a mistake – which you will – no one will ever trust you again.” Welcome to womanhood.
New figures show that nearly one in four young women has a mental illness, and depression and anxiety are among the most prevalent. Statistically, the number of young women suffering is double the number of young men. We know that mental illness is underdiagnosed in boys and men because they face a greater stigma when it comes to discussing it. We socialise girls and women to express their feelings and emotions, and many boys and men don’t have the same freedom when it comes to seeking diagnoses or reaching out for support. However, I think the overwhelming number of girls and women struggling suggests that mental illness itself is a symptom of cultural and social problems. It’s incredibly difficult to be a young woman right now. There is pressure to excel in spaces that barely existed 10 years ago. There is a painful history of misogyny that is being explored and discussed in ways that are necessary, but perhaps traumatic. Personally, I believe that being brought up with a set of expectations specific to girls and women has exacerbated my anxiety, and perhaps even played a key role in its formation.
Essentially, every single one of my anxieties is connected to a fear that I am not good enough – and just not enough. I believe people will only approve of me if I deliver results constantly and consistently. I’m on a tightrope and, if a human error topples me, I shall be cancelled. Years of therapy and effort means that most of the time these feelings simply emit a low-level background hum, but sometimes they become unmanageable. Of course, there are plenty of boys and men who will identify with these fears, but we live in a world that never stops telling girls they’re not good enough. I’m not surprised that I’ve internalised this.
I believe people will only approve of me if I deliver results constantly and consistently. I’m on a tightrope and, if a human error topples me, I shall be cancelled
We know that the NHS is overstretched, short of cash and struggling to come anywhere close to providing the level of mental-health support that the nation needs. A report in The Guardian revealed that tens of thousands of teenagers are using apps. The number of under-18s using Kooth, a free online-counselling service, has risen from 20,000 in 2015 to 65,000 now – and it’s expected to go up to 100,000 by the end of the year. Of the 123,138 users of Calm Harm, an NHS-approved app created to reduce self-harming, 82% are girls or women.
Another NHS-approved app, Babylon Health, has been marketed as a way of giving us quick access to GPs through our phones, but one prospective user found that she could only use it if she was no longer registered at her local doctor’s surgery. There is a chilling disconnect between the problems we face and the solutions we’re being offered. Technology is a brilliant tool that can be used to enhance the treatment we receive, but how can we hope to treat the very human problem of mental illness if we keep dehumanising the treatment system? For many of us, our phones and the worlds contained therein are what exacerbate our anxiety and depression. Shouldn’t we be more careful about making sure the cause does not become the only cure?
Anyone who has been desperate for mental-illness treatment and found themselves waiting to be put on waiting lists will understand why these apps are so popular. We should be alarmed by the fact that these numbers are so high and getting higher. We are all getting madder, and sadder. In some ways, it’s encouraging to know that technology is evolving fast to meet our needs. Yet, I see very few signs of any fundamental cultural shifts that actively promote mental wellness. The number of girls and women who are in pain is constantly increasing. We’re offered quick cures and management solutions, but no one is tackling the root of the problem or even asking why.
When we talk about mental illness, we’re quick to make it clear that it does not obey laws of reason or rationality. Any one of us can suffer at any time – it does not discriminate or follow logic. However, we need to acknowledge that modern life might be making it worse. Historically, the medical complaints of women have been ignored and dismissed. I wonder whether this is why we’re reluctant to address what might be at the root of the growth of mental illness among young women. It’s easy to tell us to fix ourselves when we’ve grown up hearing and believing that we’re the problem. It’s much more difficult to work together to fix the world and build an environment where women can feel safe, happy, supported and free to pursue their dreams. However, we’re in the throes of a crisis and this is the only way to resolve it.