Snowflakes, boomerangs + Mental Health
Haruki Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' and Sally Rooney's 'Normal People'
In this article I wanted to talk about loneliness and isolation among young people, and I found the best way for me to do this was to write what I know- so in true English grad style I’m using two
novels that helped me to consolidate my thoughts on this growing epidemic and its links with mental health. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami) and Normal People (Sally Rooney) are two books that interrogate what permeates and closes off the psyches of young people, precisely at the point where there is a lot of pressure to connect with the world. Many students will identify with this as the pressure to find some kind of vague calling- (and yes, that actually is quite a lot of pressure and also yes it’s okay to feel that it is!) I want to to focus on University life, not only because both books do, but because this is an institution from which I’ve had first hand experience; where it seemed that, amongst all the amazing opportunities, anxiety, self-hate, loneliness and depression did seem to have a quasi-infectious quality. And I’m shoving in a ‘quasi’ because I don’t want to be misunderstood- I’m far from demeaning mental health here into just a series of growing bad moods when exams hit. And that leads me to two really annoying attitudes surrounding mental health that I want to flag:
Number one, the increasingly frequent assumption that, the more we dissect and label strands of mental health, applying terms of medical diagnosis, the more people begin to use these labels as an excuse that acts to ‘let them off’. So, by this logic, a mental health condition can be a neatly packaged or even lazy excuse for feeling ‘bad’ or ‘stressed’. Not only is this ‘its probably just attention seeking and weakness’ attitude horribly narrow minded, it can be really dangerous- both for the recipient and the persons forming that opinion. If you have a problem with approaching another’s emotional traumas, it’s got to be impossible to come to understand your own. Terms of diagnosis, while by no means perfectly compatible with the complex spectrum that is mental health, must be used to identify and underline its seriousness, and as a gateway to a better understanding of the causes of a condition and its remedies.
Number two, another prevailing attitude of mental health as strictly a recent phenomenon, owing to an increased understanding of it’s effects, and to its association with a supposed millenial generation of naval gazing ‘snowflakes’. While I may only be able to speak from a millenial perspective, Murakami’s quasi-autobiographical 'Norwegian Wood' is set in 1960s Tokyo, exploring, with frankly a brutal honesty, the effects of anxiety, depression and suicide amongst young people. It’s understatedness, a climate ‘where suicides land with no more than a gust of wind’, exposes its tragedy. And as for the weakness, or easily-offended self-centredness implied in the term ‘snowflake’, I want to refer to NW again. Here’s one of my favourite lines:
‘I was at that age, that time of life where every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang to me. And worse, I was in love.’
So this is the classic self-centred perception of the snowflake generation, right? But Watanabe, the speaker here and narrator throughout the novel, is actually so conscious of his failings that he is often completely unable of any form of self-love, motivation or ambition:
“The “changes” that came were just two-dimensional stage sets, backdrops without substance or meaning. I trudged along through each day in its turn, rarely looking up, eyes locked on the never-ending swamp that lay before me, planting my right foot, raising my left [...] never sure where I was, never sure I was headed in the right direction, knowing only that I had to keep moving”
The boomerang line occurs at the start of the novel, with the clear implication that to not be self-effacing is a bad thing. This seems to be the kind of attitude drummed into the ‘snowflake’ millennials as well, with that phrase utilised to highlight their problems as trivial and mockable- (see Fight Club and Brad’s ‘you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake’... well Brad, there sure is a lot of pressure to be). Self-love is clearly still remarkably uncool nowadays and, needless to say, that is a problem. More often than not, young people have lifestyles that are more self-centred; they are a demographic that, on average, will have very few to no dependants. But neither are the pressures, whether emotional, educational or financial, either trivial or one-size-fits-all. I’m not saying we should be selfish and unkind, but that we seem to be forgetting that we shouldn’t deny kindness to ourselves as well.
So what is causing so much self-depracation? ,I don't think there's an easy or one-size-fits-all answer here either. There are many ways in which I think the UK’s education system, while placing increasing demands on their young people, don’t do enough for their students. I want to hone my opinion on this, hopefully productively, (in true UK educated lingo I might even give some classic EvenBetterIfs). If Universities really are just a reflection of what goes on in wider society, I think there are some pretty easily identifiable failures. I also want to quote former NUS Welfare Vice-President Eva Crossan- Jory as I feel she makes a valid point:
“Poor student mental health is rooted in the material conditions that students are expected to deal with as they study [...] However many wellbeing initiatives providers invest in in, we can only ever scrape the surface of the problem if we’re unwilling as a sector to look at the root cause of the problem: an education system itself which reproduces and exacerbates social inequality”
There are parallels of this sentiment in Sally Rooney’s Connell and the isolation he feels amongst
upper middle-class students at Trinity College, Dublin. In a particularly cynical rant against his more financially well-off English Lit classmates he describes ‘culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about’. For Murakami’s Watanabe, while a character more financially stable, his University education grows easily meaningless as well, wrapped up in an empty self-gratification: he ‘decided to think of it as a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom’. I’d hope not too many students relate too wholeheartedly with either of these sentiments, but maybe a disconnect with why it is we study whatever subject we do, and how that’s going to change anything, can be relatable. This rootlessness, and adoption into an education system that normalises social inequalities, has an undeniably negative impact on the student psyche.
While of course there are numerous reasons why emotional fitness might be deteriorating in young people, beyond the reach of the education system, a lot of the time the question is how much is the University responsible for the wellbeing of its students? Where waiting times for support structures like University counselling can grow to 12 weeks (five or six weeks or so on average), which in an atmosphere as intense as a university term feels a lot longer, a suffering individual is likely to feel unheard. With the budgets for student mental health consistently underfunded and/or
frozen, and the prospect of effective preemptive support structures (not just a few pretty welfare
dogs) still a bit of a pipe dream, it is more important than ever to feel you can talk and
connect with flat mates, housemates, family and friends in as open-minded and accepting an environment as possible. I found NW and NP amazing books to read together as each describe disconnections and silences between relationships with so much weight; stubbornly, these communication failures always lead to tragedy:
“The ragged end of the last word she spoke seemed to float in the air, where it had been torn off. She had not actually finished what she was saying. Her words had simply evaporated. She had been trying to go on, but had come up against nothing. Silence, not wanting to speak”
“Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy
Perhaps, aside from the University environment, it would be stupid not to briefly mention the impact of technology on interpersonal disconnections as well. For all it’s glory, it has caused this weird parallel world where face to face intimacy would have been. Who hasn’t clicked interested or maybe to a friends invitation on Facebook then ghosted? I know I have. And then there’s the incessant competition that is social media, which also doubles as a meme-ridden abyss of existential crises, and this all acts to distance people further from there non-virtual and unexaggerated selves. There’s a substantial and weirdly paradoxical disconnect between people due to instant communication and it seems, both on and off the screen, students are feeling more isolated and alone than ever.
It seems harder than ever to pin down exactly where the greater part of the failures lie, but it also seems that what we are doing to treat, never mind prevent, mental health conditions requires re-examinig. it would be easy to generalise that if Universities had more funding and if we just talked more, the problem would go away. It won’t and there’s no quick see it say it sorted oracle to go to here. I think I’d ask instead that we continue to heavily scrutinise, on an individual level, our attitude when it comes to mental health, while also taking more time to slow down and self-reflect more on our own judgements of ourselves. Just like any disease, it’s important to know as much as we can about what we’re fighting against; what should always be obvious is that we’re fighting against the disease and its causes, not its sufferer.