What happens in the United States is always doubly fundamental for the rest of the world: firstly, because it is the world’s leading power and will remain so for a long time to come. Secondly, because developments in its society, music, morals, fashions, technologies, intellectual and political disputes, are generally found a little later in the rest of the world. In particular, what American youth experiences is often what awaits the rest of the world’s youth. We saw this throughout the twentieth century, and again very recently with wokism, which originated there before spreading elsewhere, for very good reasons, and also with some disastrous consequences.

Today, an even more fundamental development in what is happening to American youth is not attracting enough attention from the rest of the world:

As the English historian Niall Ferguson noted in a recent article (1), American youth is on the verge of suicide. The proof is in the pudding: 11.5% of American youths between the ages of 12 and 17 “experience a depression that severely reduces their capacity to live” and 17.5% of them also experienced a depressive episode in the previous year. And it’s getting worse: a 27% increase in anxiety and a 24% increase in depression in young Americans under the age of 20 have been measured in less than ten years. More incredibly, one in six American children between the ages of 2 and 8 has been diagnosed with a mental, behavioural or developmental disorder. Between 2011 and 2021 (the latest survey year available) the proportion of US high school students experiencing a persistent sense of sadness or hopelessness rose from 28% to 42%. And the proportion of those considering suicide rose from 16% to 22%; the proportion who have attempted suicide rose from 8% to 10%; in other words, one in ten American high school students has attempted suicide. It is easy to understand why so many of them use all kinds of drugs, commit all kinds of violence, and run away in all kinds of ways.

There are probably a thousand reasons for all this; for me, the main one is that the world that American adults are preparing to leave to their children is not a good one for them: a massive increase in temperature, hurricanes and storms; a crushing inequality, which reserves more and more of the wealth for the children of the rich, who no longer go to the same schools as them and who now form an almost totally closed caste. A blocked future, where the American dream has disappeared.

Instead of rebelling, engaging in politics, trying to succeed (which some of them still do, happily), more and more of them are choosing what I call the “Stefan Zweig syndrome”, in reference to this immense Viennese writer, who thought he was being hunted by the Nazis, and convinced of the irreversible end of European culture and civilisation, which he embodied so well, and of the definitive victory, in Europe at least, of Hitler’s and Stalinist totalitarianism, fell into a deep depression and committed suicide, in Brazil, with his partner, in February 1942; two months after the defeat of Pearl Harbour and at a time when the Axis armies seemed to be triumphant on all fronts. If everyone in the democracies still fighting had thought and acted as he did, his prognosis would have come true.

It is probably the same thing that is happening here: a large part of American youth has gone into depression and is thinking of suicide, because no one seems to convince them that a just future, with a controlled climate, in a society that is kind to everyone, is still possible. One can understand them when one observes the petty games played by politicians and the egoisms of the rich, in democracies adrift in the face of cynical, barbaric totalitarianisms convinced that they will be around for a thousand years. As Hitler was.

Let’s be careful that this epidemic does not affect us. Nothing is more urgent than to give young people, in America as in France, a credible perspective, to make them understand that if the battle for the survival of humanity is not won, it can be. And that they can contribute to it. But we need war leaders capable of giving hope and having a strategy to justify it.


Photo: Stefan Zweig at his desk, ca. 1925.

(1) “US Teens Feel Down, But the Adults Aren’t All Right Either” By Niall Ferguson, February 26, 2023 at 5:00 AM GMT, America’s mental health crisis.