A snowflake on the end of a leaf

Generation Snowflake: The Changing Discourse Around Distress

I’m late to yoga this morning. This is particularly unfortunate as this class is the busiest of the week, which is to say it is 9am on a Saturday. The instructor asks us to start with a grounding meditation in Shavasana. One minute into this meditation, I register the sound of the door and then the feeling of something feathery against my arm. This sensation is followed by a light wet dabbing. I open my eyes to see a small Shih Tzu next to me and a woman (the owner I presume) setting up on the last available mat next to mine. She doesn’t acknowledge my confusion. Instead, she sets up a bed for the dog in the small space between our mats.

I am distracted throughout the 75-minute class. At one point, I consider leaving, but I am too embarrassed. At the class’s conclusion, people approached the woman, took photos, and played with the dog. It seems the novelty of the environment has rendered the domestic animal completely rare and remarkable. Much like when a dog found its way on school campus in school, my fellow yogis go crazy like children. The woman is glowing radiantly when she says it is her new support dog for her anxiety. I sidestep the guffawing group and B-Line out of there. In the weekend that follows, I find my mind returning to this experience often. There is something about the delivery of the woman’s words and the attention she received I find very hard to swallow. 

123.1% more people meet the criterion for a mental disorder than 10 years ago

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of Medicare-subsidised mental health services in the past ten years, especially since the deployment of the Better Access (BA) initiative, which was designed to target common mental disorders like anxiety, social anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. The number of people using these services jumped 123.1% from 2008-9 to 2019-20 despite our population only rising 18.4%. To access the BA (subsidised mental health support known as The Mental Health Care Plan), one must meet the criteria for a ‘diagnosable mental disorder’. Thus, the increase means that 123.1% more people meet said criterion than ten years ago. While it is fantastic that people can access support services more easily, experts also warn we should not be so quick to judge the growth as purely positive.

Concept Creep

One popular and controversial figure leading this discussion is personality psychologist and researcher, Nick Haslam, who spent the past two decades researching and developing a theoretical concept to explain the explicit spike. He calls it ‘Concept Creep’. The theory proposes psychology’s key terms have undergone semantic inflation in two directions. Plainly said, this theory suggests that the definitions of mental distress and illness have become much broader over time, becoming larger in scope.  This is neither a positive nor negative phenomenon, and it is purely a theory to describe the enormous spike in diagnoses. Concept Creep argues concepts like abuse, bullying, mental disorder, trauma, and anxiety have undergone a meaning shift to now encompass a broader range of presentations and experiences. It defines two types of expansion:.

  • Vertical Expansion refers to “less severe” instances of the concept being incorporated into the concept definition, e.g., spanking is now considered physical abuse.
  • Horizontal Expansion refers to the broadening of the definition to include periphery phenomena, e.g., parental abuse was previously solely physical or sexual. Now, parental abuse also entails neglect and emotional abuse.

The theory takes into consideration several environmental, biological, social, and cultural factors at the root of this semantic inflation. However, the theory’s most salient argument is that the increase is due to a population of people with a lower threshold and tolerance to harm-related concepts. That is, Haslam (along with a growing cohort) believes we are seeing a collective increase in our harm-sensitivity. In hyperbolic terms, the theory describes the people of the contemporary moment as belonging to ‘Generation Snowflake’. 

People are less concerned with basic survival and more interested in self-expression and well-being

The increased sensitivity to harm is not a brand-new phenomenon, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, the increased sensitivity has served us well and shows we have evolved for the good. Today we realise the potential harm in certain attitudes of the past (such as the damage caused by physically discipling a child), which makes the harm-sensitivity adaptive. On the other hand, it was typical for a primary school child of the 1950’s to play freely in the neighbourhood if they were home by dinner, with their parents none-the-wiser for their precise location. Whereas a parent of the present moment might be questioned and potentially regarded as neglectful for being this relaxed. This is an example where harm sensitivity can be maladaptive.

Haslam identifies several cultural phenomena involved in our increased sensitivity to harm. The first being that the West is a post-materialist society, whereby non-material values are more important than material values. This means that (generally) people are less concerned with basic survival and more interested in self-expression and genuine well-being. Therefore, if a person’s emotional experience is at the forefront, so is their personal suffering. It is also not unusual for celebrities, leaders and online personalities to publicly disclose details about their mental health struggles, which in turn makes the public increasingly at liberty to consider their own experiences.

Conflating everyday experiences with clinical pathology trivialises the experiences of those who are seriously suffering

The combination of these online and public voices has seen what Haslam calls ‘Umbrella Concepts’ dominate the discourse, often proliferated via social media. Umbrella concepts are broad, buzzword terms like ‘distress’, ‘mental illness’, ‘mindfulness’, and ‘mental health’. The saturation of these terms means they are often misused, diluted and devoid of their original meaning. Mental health professionals frown at the rise of a Wellness Industry that centres on brand ideology and marketing campaigns based on ‘wellness’ and ‘mental health’. They argue it is a reckless and potentially negligent trend as, amongst other things, it deflects attention and recourses from individuals who require genuine regular care and support. 

We must be careful not to interpret normal sadness as depression, worry and fear as clinical anxiety, and adverse life events as trauma. Doing so trivialises genuine suffering and floods the already stressed industry, but most importantly, can hinder our resilience (read more about resilience here). Many people legitimately require an emotional support animal, and I recognise that my yoga neighbour could be one of them. However, parts of America are reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt.  In January of 2022, California enacted a new law to regulate the enormous spike in emotional support dogs. This is particularly prevalent in Santa Monica where you will see warnings on service dog fraud on coffee shop signs. Patricia Marx satirised this phenomenon in the New Yorker nearly a decade ago now, where she shared a successful attempt to bring her emotional support turtle into an Upper East Side art gallery.

A high sensitivity to harm may be problematic to our personal identity

A new study shows that our sensitivity to harm-related concepts might also be priming us to experience more distress than we otherwise would. In a study at Harvard University, Payton Jone and Richard McNally revealed individuals who possess a broad definition of trauma responded significantly more distressed to a mildly traumatic film and even developed PTSD symptoms due to their familiarity with the diluted definitions popularised today. Through this, we see how semantic expansion and sensitivity to harm can be problematic to our personal identities. Despite this, Haslam stresses that Concept Creep and the associated sensitivity to harm is neither good nor bad. Instead, it is a descriptive concept of the situation currently unfolding. He simply warns we must be cautious as the new editions of our diagnostic tools demonstrate a loosening of the criteria that decides where ‘normality’ ends and ‘mental disorder’ begins. 

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You can read more about coping with day to day stress here, and if you’re also interested in building your resilience, Michael Neenan’ book “Developing Resilience” highlights some great strategies.