Keep Calm and Carry On?

With exams around the corner and the sight of depressed and panic-stricken students frenetically flocking to the university libraries like battery chickens to revise, some immersed in their textbooks and writing notes like their life depended on it, others simply bored to tears and contemplating their own existential ennui, this got me thinking.  To what extent is the mental health of students and young people in general affected by our education system and modern technology amongst other factors? What effect does it have on our happiness and wellbeing?

There has been a plethora of recent statistics and news reports about the rise in prescriptions of anti-depressant pills and cases of depression, especially amongst young people with the poor state of the economy and lack of jobs usually being given as reasons. Furthermore, a recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in ten Britons is lonely, and the proportion among the young is higher and rising. We are spending more time immersed in technology and screens, perpetually seeking instant gratification and escapism and linking our own self-worth to how many Facebook friends we have. Recent research revealed that the average 18-35 year old has 237 Facebook friends. When asked on how many of these they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

The British education system has a large role in accounting for our malaise; it is toxic formula for unhappiness and discontentment. Instead of education becoming a source for personal growth and fulfilment, we are tacitly led to view it as a commodity useful purely for its instrumental value in the rat-race for jobs. From age sixteen onwards we are subject to a soul-destroying seven or so years (give or take) of relentless testing, constantly being told that our exams are so easy our qualifications are meaningless, and at  the end of all this there are no jobs to reward us for our ordeal. As my colleague Rudi Abdallah astutely observed in these pages last week, “we are all faceless, anonymous tools, to be used at will by avaricious, solipsistic politicians in their quest to write their name in history books.” One can’t help ponder what effect this is having on our collective wellbeing. British politicians are obsessed with developing talented young to compete on the world stage (that trite mantra again) and against talented graduates from countries such as India and China. However, the Scandinavian countries are often held up for their approach to education and their high scores on happiness indexes. Finland is well-known for its laid-back attitude to testing and high levels of personal satisfaction. Why can’t we emulate this approach? Is developing a generation of miserable young people with fancy qualifications used to being treated like soulless drones more important than having them happy and fulfilled?

Thankfully, steps are being taken in the right direction. Not that long ago, David Cameron launched an initiative to gauge levels of happiness and wellbeing in Britain. It was swiftly derided as a hollow gimmick and a method of distracting the public from the depressing news of the state of the economy. Although I disagree with much that this coalition government says and does, I found Cameron’s comments welcome and refreshing and I’ve observed recently in British society a greater willingness to talk about subjects such as depression and anxiety, which are real problem amongst young people. The notion of the stoical ‘stiff upper lip’ is deeply ingrained in the British psyche which is why mental health issues have been neglected for so long but it is encouraging to see a greater engagement with these problems in the public forum at large.

By Indranil Chaudhury. Follow at @I_Chaudhury

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