Cilantro Does Not Taste Like Soap

As promised, I will reveal all (well, not all, but most) of the results of my adventure into personal full genome sequencing. But I will reserve that for a more formal article that is forthcoming. Suffice it to say that I am not, in fact, a chimp. I know, I’m disappointed, too. I did discover, though, that I HAVE BROWN EYES! I, too, am shocked.

Other life-shattering revelations emerging from the cutting edge of biotechnology is that I do *not* think that cilantro tastes like soap, have a tendency to sneeze when I look a bright light, and have a family predisposition for male-patterned baldness.

Given my indentured service (i.e., slavery) family history, it’s not surprising that my muscle fibres are likely to be power oriented, and not endurance oriented. Doesn’t explain our predisposition toward enormous penis size and preternatural charm, though.

I have a lot to say about the utility and future of personalized genomic testing, and you will hear all about it, whether you want to or not. But today I want to talk about something else: the epidemic of anxiety in Western society in general, and among young people in particular.

In eight years of university teaching, I’ve seen the percentage of students in my undergraduate class who require some kind of medical accommodation grow and evolve in a dramatic fashion. It used to be one or two students; but this year my list consists of almost 20% of all my students. That’s right, 20% of students have a medically mandated and justified need for either in-class and/or exam-writing accommodation.

After consulting with the university’s office in charge of this accommodation, I learned that on a campus-wide level, the proportion has been steady at about 4% of the total school population for a number of years now. But that’s certainly not what I’ve been seeing. So perhaps the issues are clustered among certain disciplines.

Eight years ago, the kinds of accommodation I saw were largely physical in nature. Students with visual impairments needed exams printed in larger font, for example. Very quickly, the learning disabilities grew more common. Most frequently, in my anecdotal samples, dyslexic or similar students required more time to complete assignments and exams. But recently, the most frequent complaint is anxiety. And anxiety is accommodated in a variety of ways: additional time for assignments and exams and/or writing exams in a secluded room, for example.

Recently, I’ve begun to see common accommodations involving noise-reduction headphones, reduced aural and visual distraction, and a reduced schedule in which a student may not have more than one exam on a given day and/or no two consecutive days of exams.

A colleague recently told me of a student who could not be made aware of the amount of time left in an exam, as that information brought with it an unbearable amount of anxiety that compromised the student’s ability to effectively write the exam.

I also sense the slow but real creep of students on the autism spectrum entering higher education and requiring new kinds of accommodation specific and unique to their needs. The university administrator agrees and has seen that creep himself, with full expectation that that particular demographic may dominate our accommodation needs very quickly indeed. So the student face of higher education in Ontario may be about to change in small and subtle, but impactful ways.

I do not mean to make light of these conditions or accommodations. This is a serious concern. Anxiety is, frankly, an epidemic in our society. Today, the Toronto Star published a story about the results of an Ipsos survey of 806 Ontarians, which found that 46% of 18-34 year olds had missed school days due to anxiety. (I have not seen the methods of the survey described in any detail, so reserve commentary on the scientific rigour of the findings.)

The article focused mostly on how those people found it challenging to get help, pointing out that of the 40% of that population who had sought mental health help, half found the help-seeking challenging.

As the founding Epidemiologist for the Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, I am not surprised by these numbers, nor by the sector’s challenges in providing appropriate and timely care. Our mental health infrastructure, particularly around the needs of youth, is fractured, disorganized, and, in my opinion, fraught with competing egos, clinical theories, and a problematic distribution of limited resources.

But the purpose of this post is not to shit on the mental health sector. Everyone cares and everyone is trying. Instead, I’d like to explore, for a moment, the likely causes of this anxiety epidemic.

A family doctor suggests six possible sources: (1) loss of community coherence and support; (2) insomnia and sleep deprivation; (3) inactivity; (4) helicopter parenting; (5) new technology; and (6) environmental toxins, mostly via fast food.

I’m not aware of any strong studies seeking to identify and measure the likely causal contributions of any of these factors. To be fair, I haven’t looked that intently, as this is merely a blog post that I’m writing from the auditorium seats of a lecture on organ transplantation. But one way to assess the qualities of the physician’s list is to think about whether these factors have changed substantially on the same timeline as the observed spikes in anxiety complaints.

Community coherence

The perceived loss of community coherence has been happening for decades. I heard the same complaint when I was a child: we no longer know our neighbours, go to church, build communities, etc.

While that might be true in some neighbourhoods, I don’t think it’s true for most people as a general rule. I see in my students strong friendship groups, club memberships, and religious affiliations, which do not seem to correlate, either positively or negatively, with those seeking accommodation.

Additionally, I feel that social media has positively contributed to the sense of community, especially among those who struggle to make real-life connections. If you’re a Goth living in rural Alabama, you can go online and find other likeminded Goths living in, say, Manchester. With the advent of social media, identity isolation is something of a choice and not a necessity.

Sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a real thing. But historically, teenagers have always suffered from it. Now, the question of quality of sleep is another matter. And it’s possible that exposure to radiation, either through screens or wifi, might be disrupting sleep patterns.

Inactivity

No one is going to deny that young people are physically unfit.  The youth obesity epidemic has been well described. But again, this has been well described. But while physical activity is known effective treatment for a host of smaller mental issues, it is not a strong epidemiological predictor of mental health in large populations, as athletes have their own host of psychological issues.

And, frankly, in my anecdotal experience, the students with crippling anxiety issues are never those with noticeable obesity or overweight issues. But I could be wrong.

Helicopter parenting

Now this is the favourite go-to explanation of we old fuddy-duddies, and I think there’s something to it. At the very least, if one or more of the other factors on this list are truly to blame as the core cause of youth anxiety, parental overprotectiveness is certainly not allowing young people to fight back.

Even in university, I get the parents of adult children contacting me wanting either to explain away Little Billy’s poor results, or imploring me to step in and give greater help to struggling Little Billy. And did I mention Little Billy is a 30 year old graduate student?

For, I believe, the first time in human history, we have very large percentages of adults in their 20s who don’t know how to engage in the basic requirements of adult life: make a meal, open a bank account, travel across the city independently, and –most importantly– deal with hardship and/or failure.

Thus, when something a little less than a perfect sequence of events manifests in a young life, there is panic.

Environmental toxins

Kids have been eating crap since crap was invented. The timelines don’t line up.

New technology

Hmm. I love new technology. But it’s been shown, again unscientifically, that dependence on –and then denial of– our new connectivity toys produces a variety of stress responses.

My recent retreat from regular social media exposure first created a profound sense of loneliness in me, which morphed into hyper productivity. But I know that that’s how I have traditionally dealt with sadness and isolation, by revving up my work output. So I wonder if my social media (and therefore technology) addiction was also creating a degree of anxiety in myself as well, which manifests as a crazy workrate to mask the withdrawal symptoms?

If this is true, then young people’s reliance on the communication tools that I so adore might be the true proximal cause of their poor coping skills. I wonder if this is true globally, whether the well connected students in other cultures, perhaps those in East and South Asia, are also exhibiting higher anxiety rates.

I don’t know. But this old fuddy duddy is starting to realize that independence is a muscle that needs working out, and that means independence from electronic social connectivity and independence from readily available information.

My return to longform writing and reading for pleasure is my attempt to rehabilitate my brain. I don’t suffer from anxiety, but I think I’m sensing a degree of renewed centredness regardless. I can only imagine that for many a young person, without the coping skills and the learned fallback on trusted activities that I have cultivated, the stresses of a connected life might just be unbearable.

I like to end things on a positive note.  So here’s some advice for the upcoming holiday season. Use it well, young padawan: