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Mental Health Crisis

David Cowles

Jun 6, 2023

“We all pretty much want the same things: a unique identity, a sense of belonging, and confidence that things we think and do make a difference.”

We have a mental health emergency in America! Especially our tweens, teens, and young adults. It is fashionable to blame the pandemic, and the resulting reorganization of society, and there’s much truth in that assessment. But long before COVID-19, people had issues.

In an earlier TWS, we identified four underlying causes of today’s malaise. I call them the four I’s: Identity, Isolation, Impotence, and Illness. By ‘Illness’ I mean a pre-existing psychological condition that makes an individual more vulnerable. We need not concern ourselves with this here. That leaves Identity (or lack therefore), Isolation, and Impotence as the unholy trinity underlying our present crisis. 

We are born with no sense of ourselves. We begin to develop such a sense as we interact with our environment and with other sentient (not necessarily human) beings. Our culture encourages us to think of ourselves as unique individuals with unique personalities and unique roles to play in the orchestra we call society

At the other end of the seesaw is Isolation, the absence of belonging. We want to be unique (Identity), but we don’t want to be alone (Isolation). We want to be unique in the context of belonging. I may be the only one playing the triangle (Identity), but I am playing it as part of an orchestra to which I belong.

Finally, Impotence. I need to feel as though I make a difference to someone or something in this world. Nothing is more frustrating than repeating the same behavior over and over and never achieving an objective. I need to feel that my actions matter, that my opinions count. Driving around aimlessly makes us anxious. Driving from here to there, no matter where, gives me a sense of accomplishment. “Did it!”

So, we all pretty much want the same things: a unique identity, a sense of belonging, and confidence that things we think and do make a difference. What’s wrong with that? Only everything! 

You cannot discover your identity…because you don’t have one! Of course, you are free to create an identity for yourself and most of us do, but that’s a prefabricated persona, not a core identity. We need to keep in mind that there’s nothing sacrosanct about the identities we create. We can change them on a whim…and you will. 

Identity is simply the role we choose to play. I am not a ‘triangle player’ (Identity); I am someone who plays the triangle (Choice). Such an identity certainly doesn’t answer the age-old question: “Who am I?”

So, I’m no one. Bummer! Now more bad news: I don’t belong anywhere either. Society includes groups of people with whom I share, for a period of time and to a limited depth, certain experiences, values, interests, activities, etc. But I am always radically different from, and much more than, any group. I can pretend that there’s an ‘us’ but at 2:00 in the morning, there is only a ‘me.’ We’re just not the stuff of belonging!    

I could perhaps get past this lack of identity and belonging if I could be sure that I was making a difference, ‘leaving the world better than I found it’. Here, too, obstacles abound: The Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example. Great, so now even Nature is against me!

After Big Bang, it’s all downhill. With every novel event, good or bad, order is destroyed. Q: What’s more certain than death or taxes? A: That I will leave the world a little ‘worse’ (i.e., more disordered) than I found it. Not good!

But my problems are not all cosmic. We live in a Complex world near the center of a triangle with Determinism, Anarchy and Chaos as its nodes.  Fun Fact: It doesn’t matter whether our world is determined, anarchic or chaotic – all three noumenal states result in the exact same phenomenal world, and fortunately, that ‘nightmare’ bears no resemblance to the ‘charmed’ world we live in.

In the world as it is, actions have consequences, no doubt, but what consequences? Does a good intention guarantee a good result? Or even increase the chances of a good result? How many well-intentioned acts have done irreparable harm? How many dark plots have had unexpectedly positive consequences? 

In our world, there is a fundamental disconnect, philosophers call it alienation, between intention and result. And then there’s politics! Like any other ecosystem, our political organs have evolved with an eye to self-preservation. If you think, “I can’t fight city hall,” that’s because you can’t. If you think, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” that’s because they do. So if you’re looking to solve your identity crisis by fixing the world, you might need to give that strategy a second thought. 

We all seek a fixed identity, a sense of belonging and an experience of potency. If we’re honest with ourselves, none of us will say that we have found even one of the three, and that’s because they don’t exist! It’s hard to find something that isn’t there in the first place.

Could there be a more pessimistic prognosis? The country is suffering a crisis of Impotence, Isolation, and Identity diffusion. But not to worry! We have resources to help folks find their identities, develop their sense of belonging, and experience potency in their lives. Well, maybe worry just a little bit because there is no identity, belonging or potency to be found!

So now what? We need a brand new therapeutic approach, one that says, “Identity, isolation and impotence are problematic; who needs them?” We need to help people learn to live meaningful lives in the face of the three I’s, and and we’ll do that…just as soon as we learn to do it ourselves..


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