When it comes to therapy and mental illness, there is a tendency in our culture to idealize the Greatest and Silent Generations–those roughly in their 60s-90s–for the way they handle their problems. They sucked it up, they didn’t complain, they didn’t need to go to therapy or a support group.
This is often contrasted with the situation today, where it is said that people are too open with their problems. Using this logic, people have suggested that the increase in diagnoses of mental disorders is not a result of a greater recognition for these illnesses and the toll they take on people but rather a result of weakness on the part of the younger generations who can’t handle their problems the way their grandparents could. Unlike us, they could deal with their problems without requiring a diagnosis, therapy, and medication. That they are stronger than us is an idea that is perpetuated again and again.
In light of this persistent and I believe wrong-headed attitude, I read with great interest this New York Times article about elderly people who start therapy late in life. I found it notable that the reason this generation didn’t seek therapy wasn’t that they were somehow stronger than us but rather that there was an enormous stigma to it. Note especially this section [emphasis mine]:
That members of the Greatest Generation would feel comfortable talking to a therapist, or acknowledging psychological distress, is a significant change. Many grew up in an era when only “crazy” people sought psychiatric help. They would never admit to themselves — and certainly not others — that anything might be wrong. “For people in their 80s and 90s now, depression was considered almost a moral weakness,” said Dr. Gallagher-Thompson. “Fifty years ago, when they were in their 20s and 30s, people were locked up and someone threw away the key. They had a terrible fear that if they said they were depressed, they were going to end up in an institution. So they learned to look good and cover their problems as best they could.”
It wasn’t that they were somehow better at handling their problems than we are. And in fact being forced to bury their problems probably made it that much harder for them to get the kind of help they needed, even as therapy became more accepted.