21st Century Living in the Digital Age as the Driver of Our Mental Health Crisis

In the modern digital age we’ve seen an epidemic spike in mental health disorders–especially amongst young adults and teens. Skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, the opioid epidemic, a doubling of suicide rates, increased ADHD and overall malaise.

In fact, young people in particular are increasingly dying from what the CDC has termed “diseases of despair” (suicides, overdoses, alcoholism)…

Over the past decade an 108% increase in fatal overdoses, 69% increase in alcohol-induced deaths and 35% increase in suicides for Millenials.


Sadly, young people are the loneliest generation as 22% of Millenials indicate that they have “no friends”:


More and more, we are living our lives in front of a screen.

Teens are on screens 11 hours a day…and a 2017 survey found that 25 percent of Millennials spend an average of five hours a day using their phone; a quarter of Millennials check their phones more than 100 times a day.Apr 17, 2018

There has been a significant amount of clinical research indicating that, in large part, this mental health crisis has been driven by the digital landscape and our 21st century lifestyles:Increased isolation; being more sedentary as we sit in front of a screen; a lack of meaningful connection in the social media age; a decreased sense of purpose and meaning in a post-industrial mechanized and de-humanizing digital world.

Indeed, according to Dr. Steven Ilardi, the University of Kansas psychologist, researcher and author of The Depression Cure (Da Capo, 2009) “Americans are 10 times more likely to have depressive illness than they were 60 years ago…and a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade”.

Globally, things aren’t much better;

according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 450 million people worldwide are directly affected by mental disorders and disabilities and that by 2030 depression will top the list of all other health conditions as the number one financial burden around the world.
Dr. Ilardi believes that increased rates of depression and other mental health woes like anxiety and addiction are a byproduct of our modernized, industrialized, urbanized lives in the Digital Age. Our love affair with the gadgets and comforts of being a highly technologically evolved society have put us on a never-ending treadmill of overworking, under-sleeping and hyper-stressing as we exhaustedly lunge towards the “American Dream”.

What happens when we work longer hours in soul-crushing cubicles to buy things that we don’t need? According to Dr. Ilardi: “We’ve been engineering the activity out of our lives. The levels of bright-light exposure-time spent outdoors-have been declining. The average adult gets just over six and a half hours of sleep a night. It used to be nine hours a night. There’s increasing isolation, fragmentation, the erosion of community.”

Thus, according to Ilardi, “We feel perpetually stressed.”

Dr. Ilardi had found that certain societies-such as the American Amish and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, had essentially zero rates of depression or other mental health disorders. But how can this be? We are all essentially wired the same way–have the same DNA. And these cultures that were much more mentally healthy than ours certainly didn’t live stress-free lives. Indeed, by many measures, it is a lot more difficult living as a hunter-gatherer in New Guinea or working from-morning-to-dusk as the Pennsylvania Amish do.

So then how and why are they so mentally healthy?

Answer: Their lifestyle.

The more Dr. Ilardi looked at the commonalities of these mentally healthy societies, the more he was able to tease out certain common variables that he was then able to operationalize in his groundbreaking research dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Project. He took clinically depressed subjects and then incorporated several of these therapeutic lifestyle changes into their lives for several weeks.

The results? They experienced phenomenal outcomes: people who had suffered from mental health, anxiety, and depression for many years saw amazing–and measurable–improvements. Indeed, these improvements were statistically significant, not only when compared to control groups, but also when compared to people who had been treated only with depression medications.

And what were these magical lifestyle changes? Getting regular daily exercise; being in community; getting plenty of natural sunlight; getting ample sleep every night; eating an Omega-3 rich diet; being involved in some type of social activity where social connections were made; and participation in meaningful tasks that leave little time for negative thoughts or rumination.

Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes

Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized, Modern-Day Disorder

According to adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley, who has clinically treated over a thousnad children and teens and is the author of “ReSet Your Child’s Brain”: “I firmly believe that the unnaturally stimulating nature of an electronic screen—irrespective of the content it brings—has ill effects on our mental and physical health at multiple levels.

Screen-related effects can present in many shapes and forms. Although varied, many of the effects can be grouped into symptoms related to mood, cognition, and behavior. The root of these symptoms appears to be linked to repeated stress on the nervous system, making self-regulation and stress management less efficient. Because of the complicated and varied nature of screens’ effects, I’ve found it helpful to conceptualize the phenomena in terms of a syndrome—what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). ESS can occur in the absence of a psychiatric disorder and mimic it, or it can occur in the face of an underlying disorder, exacerbating it.”

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The Solution?

The antidote to these 21st century driven mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and adrenal fatigue are a simpler lifestyle of real face-to-face community, physical exercise, unplugging periodically and often so that our nervous systems can “re-charge”, and finding true meaning and purpose in our lives.

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