Why Are Young Progressives So Unhappy?
We know America is experiencing a mental health crisis, but the Youth Risk Behavior Survey recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrates just how serious the problem has become for America’s young people. In 2021, almost three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness. Girls are twice as likely to be depressed as boys, and one in three girls said they seriously considered suicide. This is a real crisis, and several factors are relevant.
Social media had negatively impacted mental health long before the response to COVID-19 made the problem worse. But a new, perhaps surprising factor, has emerged. It seems a teenager’s political views impact their levels of depression as well.
The study, released in December of 2022, found that liberal teens are more likely to be depressed than their conservative peers. In fact, liberal boys are more likely to be depressed than conservative girls, which suggests that political beliefs are more predictive of depression than gender.
The authors attempted to explain the depression of liberal teenagers in two ways. First, they suggest liberal teens are depressed because they live in a world dominated by conservative values. “[L]iberal adolescents may have therefore experienced alienation with a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.” Few conservatives would agree with the suggestion that conservative political attitudes have achieved cultural dominance.
Alternatively, the authors of the study suggest that progressive kids might be more depressed because they are being targeted — directly or indirectly — by conservatives. “[H]eightened awareness and experience of conservative actions to restrict their rights may have compounded emotional distress.” Is the world simply kinder to conservative teenagers? They offered no evidence of that.
Absent proof that liberal teenagers are a new category of oppressed minority, we should pause to consider whether the modern, liberal worldview might cause depression. There are reasons it could.
In the recent past, the gap between conservatives and liberals was much smaller. Partisan differences were defined by prudential disagreements over the size of government, foreign policy, marginal tax rates, the scope of appropriate regulation, or the most effective way to help the poor. Today, political tribes argue about the ability of men to get pregnant, which is really disagreement about whether humanity is supposed to make the rules or follow the rules. What we once thought of as political differences have functionally become religious differences and the data confirms the connection. Atheists and agnostics are almost always on the political Left, and the more religiously observant you are, the more likely you are to be on the political Right.
As a result, the thing that makes young people liberals is not so much their belief in a social safety net, but their belief that we are in charge of ourselves — my body my choice. While it’s nice to be in charge, for liberals the situation is complicated by the fact that everything is going terribly: the American dream is a sham, climate change will kill us all, and systemic racism is eternal, they would argue.
Not only does modern liberalism require awareness of problems, it demands a fixation on them and a conviction that they can all be fixed through political action. The Prayer of Serenity has been replaced by “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” It’s not enough to simply treat people well because, “If you’re not anti-racist, you’re racist.” Simply doing your part to make the world better is insufficient because “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” It’s exhausting, but the exhaustion is proof that you’re doing it right.
The Left’s perpetual outrage has turned anger and depression into a form of virtue. As Yglesias notes, “[A]dult progressives … valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment.” As a result, a good liberal knows only the ignorant and apathetic can afford the luxury of gratitude or contentment. Therein lies the problem. Since the world’s crises will never end, the moment for contentment, rest, and gratitude will never come.
Christians have a way to understand a broken world that leads to joy despite the pain. Jesus promised us that we would have trouble, but He told us to take heart because He has overcome the world (John 16:33). Our worldview demands joy despite the circumstances because our hope transcends the circumstances. Today’s secular progressive has no such hope. Their joy will come once they’ve worked hard enough to fix all the problems. No wonder they’re depressed.
Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council.