mental health

[OPINION] The youth are tired

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] The youth are tired

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'For those of us in a capacity to make decisions that affect our organizations, the least we can do is to make sure that their welfare is upheld. Young people are not disposable commodities.'

There’s a reality that many people readily dismiss: our youth are tired.

I can already anticipate what adults have to say.

“These kids are self-entitled.” “They’re too soft.” “We had it worse when we were young.” “We were never spoonfed.”

Caveat: there may be instances when these statements are valid. As a professor, I know that some students — I repeat, some — can indeed be self-entitled. About two semesters ago, I received an email from a student who questioned everything about the mark that I gave her, including my teaching and sense of fairness. It never occurred to her to ask about the quality of her essay.

Thankfully that was rare for me, although I’m aware that some of my colleagues have had worse experiences. 

But these encounters, I have to say, must not be the basis of how we think about young people today. Accusing them of being too soft or being self-entitled misses out the harsh reality many of them are confronted with.

They are tired. It’s time for adults to recognize this reality and understand why.

They’re really, really tired

There’s evidence for this.

Most helpful are the recently released findings of the 2021 Young Adult Fertility Survey (YAFS5), administered nationwide among 15-24 year-old Filipino youth. 

The prevalence of depressive symptoms increased from 2013-2021. Three are worth mentioning. These are feelings respondents “often” had in the week prior to the survey.

In 2013, only 7% felt they were depressed. This went up to 11% in 2021. In the same period, more felt that what they did was an “effort,” an increase from 13% to 16%. With respect to sleep, more young people had difficulties too. 14% said that their sleep was “restless,” up from 9%.

But perhaps the most revealing (and worrying) finding has to do with suicidal thoughts. Among Filipino youth, suicidal ideation increased from 8% in 2013 to 17% in 2021. The figure is more acute for female respondents (from 12% to 24%). 

Here’s a troubling reality: of those who had suicidal thoughts, 60% “did not reach out to anyone about it.”

These are serious matters. For YAFS5, the conclusion is clear: “Today’s youth have poorer mental well-being than in the last few decades.”

The pandemic, to be sure, had a lot to do with these figures. But it cannot be the only explanation. 

Even prior to the pandemic, other observers had already noted the worsening mental health situation of Filipino youth. Writing in 2019, Ciel Habito referred to it as a “mental health crisis among Filipino youth.” There are many factors worth thinking about, from the increasingly stressful demands in school to the inability of the healthcare system to address mental health needs.  

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Although I’ve been writing on youth and generational change as a sociologist, a recent encounter made me reflect more on this reality. I spent time with a young colleague, someone I’ve been mentoring for a few years now. A fresh graduate, he is now working for sales in a big company.

He joined the organization with hope and enthusiasm. When he accepted the job offer, he thought that it was a privilege to be part of a company that made him believe that what they were doing was first an advocacy before it was an enterprise. 

But months later, he realized that it was not the case. 

He has come to the conclusion that the company only paid lip service to its social advocacy. Furthermore, its culture is hostile to young people. He’s working 24/7 and the adults in the company are not the most supportive colleagues, to say the least. It’s not, in other words, for the faint-hearted. Even the most seasoned among them recently resigned.

Today he feels trapped because he knows he needs the job and has no other options just yet. But he’s also afraid that if he stays, soon enough he will become like the condescending adults he works with. To complicate matters, there’s so much financial burden on him to support his family, including his father who needs to undergo rehabilitation.

During our conversation I sensed that he didn’t have enough conversations about his situation. I asked him how all of it made him feel. He hesitatingly responded, “like a loser.” This is a big deal for someone who graduated top of his class.

We have a word for this in the social sciences: precarity. It is being situated in a social environment that “pushes us away from a livable life.” Precarity happens when our relationships fail to provide the support we need, may it be psychological, economic, or social. 

What worsens precarity is the character of economic life today. Its premise is that no one else is responsible for your success but yourself. By the same token, your failure to succeed in life is your own doing. 

This thinking emboldens exploitation in the workplace.

What to do now

Viewing precarity as the failure of our social and economic relationships highlights our collective accountability to one another. 

From this vantage point, the responsible thing to do is for adults to recognize the plight of our youth today and offer enabling spaces where they could vent and not be judged. These are much needed at a time when even those with suicidal thoughts are not seeking help at all.

But precarity is also about power imbalance. 

Young people are at a life stage where they are at the mercy of adults in power. So for those of us in a capacity to make decisions that affect our organizations, the least we can do is to make sure that their welfare is upheld. Young people are not disposable commodities.

Here’s the harsh reality today: our youth are tired. In the name of the future that we want for them, we need to make sure that they wake up tomorrow believing that it’s still worth living for. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (TOYM 2021) is the Associate Dean for Research and Creative Work at the Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist, he is the editor of Rethinking Filipino Millennials: Alternative Perspectives on a Misunderstood Generation, which critiques the use of generational labels like “Gen Z” and “Millennials” in the Philippine context. It won Best Book in the Social Sciences in the 2022 National Book Awards. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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