Time for a radical rethink of our way of life
The obvious problems with Brexit and Covid, the climate emergency, the plastic pollution of our planet, the loss of biodiversity and the continuous rampant examples of tribalism and racism, create a toxic atmosphere for us to live in. In this toxic world, it is not surprising that amongst our young people we can observe an increasing problem with nihilism and despair.
The Samaritans most recent report on suicide rates, which was based on a full study of the final figures for the year 2018 showed an alarming increase in suicide in the UK for both men and women and most particularly amongst the young.
When we look at the situation with children and teenagers, we see that suicide is the biggest killer of young people. The Samaritans report states that:
“In 2018, 759 young people took their own life in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy that devastates families, friends and communities.”
Networks to help people cope
The research tells us that young people often feel burdened by academic pressures and bullying. They also deal with many workplace issues and housing and financial problems, especially in their early twenties. Internet problems, and cyberbullying can add to the pressures. These are conclusions we can also draw from The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness (Rodway et al, 2016).
It confirms that self-harm is the frequent precursor of suicide attempts, and that suicide attempts are the frequent precursor to suicide. It shows that there are often final straw events that trigger the decision to kill oneself. These are things like broken relationships, failures at exams, family break-ups or experiences of bullying or assault. It demonstrates the importance of having educational, social and care networks in place, to catch such problems and help people deal with them before they feel out of control.
Symptoms of a such society
My own experience in working with vulnerable people has shown me that trigger events, though obviously critical, are preceded for many years, by more and more deeply embedded frustrations and exasperations about human existence. It is these experiences that we should be addressing and take more seriously. Instead of dismissing them as evidence of mental illness, we should see them as symptoms of a sick society.
What is really at issue is that people feel they live in a world in which the bad guys win. They conclude it is not worth their continued effort to persist with decency and kindness. Many feel estranged and disenfranchised. They feel they do not stand a chance in a society where the dice are so obviously loaded. If the decks are stacked against you, why should you wish to keep engaging? It is a question of powerlessness. These people are giving up on humanity. How has this happened and how do we change it?
Some time ago I created a couple of YouTube videos on topics such as “Hating humanity and wanting to give up?” and “Your misanthropic attitude may be the root of your problems.” And these have attracted more comments and snide remarks than any of my other online clips. It has made me aware of the deadly negativity some young people are living with, hardly managing to maintain enough faith in humanity to make it through another day.
It makes it a hundred times worse when they can no longer believe in politics. Their powerlessness and hatred of humanity becomes so much greater when they feel there are no peaceful solutions or ways of improving the world. They regard politicians as crooked power-mongers who are in it for personal profit. They have no motivation to try to improve a situation they feel is desperate.
While I continue to try hard to help people create a more positive personal attitude, I have come to the conclusion that these young people have a point that we often fail to address. It is not their personal problems they are despairing about: it is the problem of humanity itself.
These often very sensitive people have observed the disasters and threats around them, and they have watched the politicians posturing and jockeying for power, failing to solve the problems. They despair not only of what we have done to the planet but of what we have made of the human community.
Humans aren’t humans any more
This is very clear from comments such as, “Humans aren’t humans anymore, I hate how animals are abused. It affects me badly,” or “I feel so much hatred for people… and at the same time I care about people. It’s exhausting having two mindsets,” or “What’s the point of helping if they will only turn on you? My compassion is attacked time and time again.” Or “People lie, are greedy and selfish. And because I am not like them I’m branded loopy or sad.”
It shows that we are failing to offer a world of hope and decency to our younger generation. We have become so competitive and tough-minded with each other, that there is not enough of a sense of faith in community, mutual support and kindness any longer. Many young people feel as if the world offers no openings, no possibilities, no affection, no goodness, no sanctuary, nothing sacred and no way forward. They feel disrespected in their humanity and thus lose respect for themselves and for others as well.
Those who lead our nations are often the worst offenders, when they make it so obvious that they are prepared to speak in devious and cynical fashion about the ‘people’ and manipulate them for their own ends.
Re-establish the balance
These are the underlying problems we need to address in the world today. We need to re-establish the balance between the personal and the social, the individual and the state. We must re-emphasise our ability to civilise ourselves, respect each other and our environment. It’s essential to dare to opt for moral solutions alongside economic ones. Elsewhere I have written about this as our capacity for morality in a world that has now become dominated by virtuality. We can only save ourselves by reinventing our capacity for virtue (Deurzen, 2009, 2015).
In my recent book on Rising from Existential Crisis I addressed the specific challenges we have had to deal with, showing the importance of existential courage in addressing them. I have proposed some concrete ways for tackling these problems.
When everything has become chaotic, we must dare to create a new framework of harmony, in which there is safety. We must speak up about these things, as much as we speak up about politics and the planet. Without a change in the way we use our conscious capacity for kindness and decency we stand no chance of solving any of the other problems either.
Before we can open the gateway to the future, we must ask ourselves where we are aiming to travel.
Deurzen, E. van (2021) Rising from Existential Crisis: Living beyond Calamity, Monmouth: PCCS books.
(2015) Paradox and Passion in Psychotherapy, second edition, London: Wiley 
(2009) Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness, London: Sage.
Rodway, C, Tham, S.G., Ibrahim, S., Turnbull, P.,Windfuhr, K., Shaw, J., Kapur N., Appleby, L. (2016) Suicide in children and young people in England: a consecutive case series, in The Lancet, Psychiatry, 3:751-759. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016 S2215-0366(16)30094-3