This essay is part of our month exploring the theme of Self-Care.
I went to college during a moment of widespread cultural change. Throughout my four years at Vassar, what has been described as “PC culture” became the norm, and with it emerged the language of safe spaces and trigger warnings, along with a heightened thoughtfulness about violence and pain in its many manifestations. This change has not necessarily been institutional, but rather, driven by the colloquial culture of the student body. Responses to this cultural moment have varied, but a particularly dominant one has been a collective eye roll; millennials have been called snowflakes, hypersensitive, and soft. (See this scathing listicle of the most ridiculously PC moments from 2017, this article outlining "5 Ways America is Creating a Generation of Wimps," or any video by conservative commentator Tomi Lahren).
Understanding the ethos of millennials would require an involved analysis, with perspectives from many disciplines, likely including cultural theory, history, and sociology. But there is one aspect of the millennial attitude in particular that resonates with the themes in Ruby’s diary: our newfound attention to mental health.
More young people are speaking openly about mental health than ever before. This is reflected in popular culture; Logic’s song 1-800-273-8255 about depression and suicide peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and mainstream TV shows like Lady Dynamite and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend offer dynamic representations of mental illness, with main characters navigating Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, respectively. One might point to unprecedented levels of mental disorders among America’s youth to explain this, but I hesitate to make that claim, because the data varies. The data is also unreliable, because mental disorders often went undiagnosed in previous generations. What is indisputable is that the cultural conversation has shifted; mental health is not as taboo a topic as it once was.
BUT THERE IS ONE ASPECT OF THE MILLENNIAL ATTITUDE IN PARTICULAR THAT RESONATES WITH THE THEMES IN RUBY’S DIARY: OUR NEWFOUND ATTENTION TO MENTAL HEALTH.
At the end of Ruby’s Diary Part 1, Ruby’s dad says to her, “I think you spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing yourself… to spend all this amount of time that you do, defining your illness, what’s wrong with you… there’s a lot of things right with you.” Though I would counter his statement by stripping the judgment of Borderline as a flaw, I completely empathize with the sentiment. As a parent, it must be painful to hear your kid talk about their illness; you wish they would instead celebrate their strengths and virtues. But Gordon was raised during a time when “invisible” diagnoses—i.e. ADHD, OCD, and Depression—were not honored (if they were diagnosed at all). He belongs to a generation that valued and embodied resilience, stoicism, and grit. So it would make sense that there is a level of learned discomfort around the topic of Ruby’s personality disorder. But I think there is a necessary balance to be found here. There is a way to talk about mental health without feeling consumed by it or letting it define you. Feeling able to talk about mental illness is the first step in eradicating the stigmas which surround it.
This conversation often comes back to the “who had it harder” debate. Non-millennials may claim that the youth of today are growing up with little challenge, that unlike previous generations, we have not lived through domestic war or its aftermath, we have not experienced a broken economy, we have opportunities galore. On the other hand, many millennials would say that we do have it tough: we have grown up with an attachment to technology that has created immense amounts of anxiety, and we experience pressure from our parents to excel that weighs heavily on our spirits and sense of self.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS, THE DATA OF “WHO HAD IT HARDER” IS NOT MEASURABLE AND IS NOT EVEN WORTH OUR TIME MEASURING.
The truth of the matter is, the data of “who had it harder” is not measurable and is not even worth our time measuring. What is worth our time is making space for honest conversation, because some of our most important relationships—those with our parents, elders, and employers—are at stake. There is much to learn on both sides. Non-millennials could benefit from an honest reckoning with things that are hard and painful to talk about, and millennials could benefit from an injection of that grit that is so faithfully embodied by our parents’ & grandparents’ generations.
Though young people are talking about mental health now more than ever, the work is nowhere near done. There are still systemic barriers to accessing mental healthcare, and stigmas within institutional communities, such as the workplace and school, prevent people from opening up about their struggles. Keeping in mind the end goal of de-stigmatization of mental illness and subsequent structural change, we must begin with honest and open-minded intergenerational conversations. That is what Ruby and her Dad have begun to do, and I thank them for that.