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28 January, 2020 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 28 January, 2020 12:29:20 AM

The all pervasive anxiety epidemic

Not only Bangladesh, now the world is facing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions
The all pervasive anxiety epidemic

The High Court (HC) recently issued a rule asking the government to explain in four weeks why it should not be directed to appoint counselors or ‘clinical’ psychologists at all educational institutions across the country in order to develop and determine students’ morality. In response to a writ petition, the HC bench comprising Justice M Enayetur Rahim and Justice Md Mostafizur Rahman issued the rule. Chairman of University Grants Commission (UGC) and secretaries to the ministries of education, public administration, health and primary and mass education, and director-general of Directorate of Education have been made respondents to reply to the rule within four weeks.

Supreme Court lawyer Farhad Uddin Ahmed Bhuiyan had on November 24 last year filed the writ petition with the HC seeking necessary order in this regard. As a result of the spread of technology, the rate of addiction, sexual abuse, suicide attempts and murder in the educational institutions is increasing. It also said that the moral depravity, reckless attitude, inattentiveness, personality crisis, restlessness and unruly behaviour among the students are increasing, some of which have made headlines. All these are taking the young generation towards an uncertain future. As a result of that, the number of untoward incidents at the educational institutions was increasing rapidly.

To prevent that, the government should appoint counselors and clinical psychologists in every educational institution of the country, the petitioner noted. According to the Constitution of the country, the state is responsible to ensure its people’s sound health and build active manpower but the students are being deprived of such facilities. Therefore, a counselor or clinical psychologist needs to be appointed at all academic institutions in order to develop morality among the students and resist moral degradation, the petitioner said (The Independent, January 6, 2020).

Not only Bangladesh, now the world is facing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions. Many institutions are overwhelmed, their mental health services ill-equipped to cope with the growing demand. Consequently, students have at times been left untreated in precarious states of mental health – an unsustainable situation that the statistics show can end tragically. The fact remains, though, that much, much more needs to be done if this issue is to be properly tackled – too many young people are falling through the cracks.

As far as we understand, the epidemic has proved relatively indiscriminate, afflicting not just students, but young people from across society, irrespective of gender, nationality or class. That being said, the university is by no means an irrelevant factor. Adapting to life away from home for the first time and the rigors of studying can obviously be difficult. Such change is rarely smooth and can trigger or exacerbate a whole range of mental conditions, from anxiety and depression to social phobia. And as we’ve seen, it’s doing so with increasing regularity.

Anxiety rising: Of these conditions, cases of anxiety have increased the most. It's now the most common mental illness in the US and affects over 40 million people, the majority of whom are young adults. Worryingly, there is no study or study attempt to estimate the anxiety and depression related sufferers in Bangladesh and leaving most to suffer alone with no assistance whatsoever.

This is of grave importance, for anxiety can be extremely debilitating and at its worst can feel insurmountable. If left untreated, as evidently it often is, it can operate as ‘gateway’ disorder – the isolation it encourages leading to drug and alcohol abuse, and sometimes depression. Swift, comprehensive, and stigma-free treatment, therefore, is imperative.

But what exactly are the roots of this disturbing trend towards anxiety? We can state that the causes of

To put this into some kind of perspective, Generation Zers spend, on average, four hours a day on social media – and this is no chance happening. The ‘attention economy’, of which Facebook, for example, is a part, relies on the addictive quality of the platform. The longer attention can be kept on a page, the better that page functions as advertising space and the more advertisers can be charged to advertise on it. Whether it’s Facebook’s like button or Snapchat’s streak, these platforms are designed to trigger hits of dopamine – the same chemical secreted following sex and cocaine use – that keep users coming back for more. That one of the designers of Facebook’s ‘like’ button restricts his children’s Facebook access speaks volumes as to how insidious this business model can be. The effects of this widespread addiction are now visible everywhere, having transformed human behaviour.

Increasingly, checking social media has replaced actual social interaction. On entering a room many will immediately check into social media to avoid potentially challenging small talk with said room’s occupants. Take a study break and instead of shooting the breeze with fellow students the same thing often occurs. This behaviour is not without consequence. As Psychology Today has reported, social connections – in the ‘real world’, that is – lay the foundations of self-confidence and their deprivation can have damaging effects on self-esteem. Simply put, people get out of practice communicating verbally and when confronted with a situation in which it’s necessary they can become anxious.

Perfectionism reigns: The world people enter when ‘escaping’, although purporting to be real, or at least a reflection of the real, is far from it.

Rather, it is a highly polished, idealized version of life; a world of heavily curated profiles, smiling faces, and endless attractive friends. Gone is the mess, the ugliness, and the imperfection of actual reality – the hallmarks of being human. Lift one’s head from phone to the real world and these elements rush back to fill one’s vision, the drudgery suddenly more potent in comparison with the phone world’s shimmering, unachievable wonderfulness. The discrepancy between these two realms has led to a damaging increase in perfectionism. Many have developed impossible expectations of life that operate in conjunction with an insatiable inner critic that constantly questions why things aren’t matching up with the doctored beauty of social media.

From a scientific standpoint, excessive screen use - as social media demands - is proven to release stress hormones that arouse the central nervous system.

This can prompt feelings of anxiety and agitation, which disrupt sleeping patterns, creating a dangerous cycle. In this instance, young people can get stuck in a rut, unable to escape a highly adrenalized existence, a pattern that causes inevitable psychological crashes – and physical crashes, when the adrenaline runs out – as well as moments of crushing self-doubt. Generation Zers, many of whom have recently become students, are experiencing the brunt of this. In addition to contending with the stresses, the ups, and downs, of campus life, they're doing so while being the first demographic cohort raised with social media.

Are we surprised? That this phenomenon has arisen in our culture is in many ways unsurprising. Since the 1960s consumerism has penetrated all aspects of our lives, both public and private. Problems, it is drummed into us, can be solved by means of simple acquisition. Clothes, appliances, food, lifestyle: these are our sources of happiness and fulfillment; this is where we can find satisfaction and pleasure. Alas, as many are figuring out, it's not that easy. Temporary fixes may be had, at a price, but a more permanent sense of contentment often remains elusive, tantalizingly out of reach. Instead, what develops is a deep craving, the idea that the next purchase will be the key. And there lies the addiction, the endless search. Social media relies on this same logic, making it applicable to our very being: if only the profile picture gained 10 more likes, personality, and as corollary self-worth would be validated. It’s an unsustainable way to live if one wants to find inner peace.

Clearly, the way we are using social media is not conducive to good mental health. The connections between its incessant use and anxiety are clear, medically supported, and need greater exposure. The present situation should serve as motivation to change; things look bleak; the statistics pertaining to mental conditions grim.

A good starting point could be a wholesale reassessment of our collective relationship with social media: how is it serving us? What kind of behaviour is it encouraging? Would we benefit from moderating the amount of time we spent on it? The problem is not going to solve itself; the profit-hungry social media giants will make sure of that, and society has a responsibility to protect its younger generations; to make sure their futures are safe. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to reassert our own values, as we would like them to be, and stop dancing to the algorithm’s money-driven tune. The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR),  Dhaka, Bangladesh.





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Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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