The mental health consequences of social justice fundamentalism

Greg Lukianoff and Andrea Lan

In their 2015 article and 2018 book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg and Jonathan Haidt argue that cognitive distortions (practices like catastrophizing, black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning) and overprotecting children results in an external locus of control, helplessness and despair, and both the mental health crisis and the rampant culture of illiberalism on campus that we’re seeing today.

Certainly, the two major concerns from the 2015 article have borne out, with academic freedom and free speech on campus being threatened at an unprecedented scale since 2014 — but especially since 2017 — and mental health of young people tanking to a degree even greater than even Greg and Jon ever predicted. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has reported consistent and rapid increases in the rates of suicide and depression in teens (12-17) and young adults (18-25) since at least 2012. Just last year, nearly 20% of teens (12-17) and a similar number of young adults (18-25) reported experiencing a major depressive episode. This is compared to just 7% in adults older than 25 last year, and just 9% of teens and young adults back in 2012.

Something is clearly happening, but what’s the cause? The recent documentary film “The Coddling of the American Mind,” directed by Ted Balaker, showcases how the adoption of what Tim Urban calls “social justice fundamentalism” (a.k.a.  “Wokeness” — a term we don’t love) and its associated catastrophizing spirals led three of the film’s protagonists, Kimi, Lucy, and Saeed, into feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Arnold Kling:

“At the extremes, 57% of very liberal students in our study reported feelings of poor mental health at least half the time, compared to just 34% of very conservative students”

…Only 41% of very liberal males report feelings of poor mental health more than half the time, compared to 60% of very liberal females, and a whopping 70% of very liberal non-binary students.

She writes as if the causality runs from social justice extremism to emotional fragility. But I am inclined to think that it is the other way around. If you are mentally fragile, you are likely to be attracted to an extreme ideology that gives you an external source to blame for your discomfort.

Ted Gioia proposes a reading list for a course on stupidity. Among the essay questions he proposes for a final exam are these: