Mental health problems are on rise among American teens and young adults, study finds
You can call the generation of young Americans now working their way to adulthood Generation Z, because they follow Generations X and Y. You can call these 14-to-27-year-olds “iGen,” after the wireless devices that seem permanently affixed to their persons. And if they’re your kids and still living with you, you can even call (or text) them late for dinner.
What you can’t call them, according to new research, is happy.
A study published last week finds that U.S. teens and young adults in 2017 were more distressed, more likely to suffer from major depression, and more prone to suicide than their counterparts in the millennial generation were at the same age.
Researchers also found that between 2008 and 2017, Gen Z’s emotional distress and its propensity toward self-harm grew more than for any other generation of Americans during the same period. By 2017, just over 13% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 25 had symptoms consistent with an episode of major depression in the previous year — a 62% increase in eight years.
Between 2008 and 2017, suicides among young adults in age brackets between 18 and 25 grew by as much as 56%, and the rate at which these young people entertained thoughts of suicide rose by up to 68%. Suicide attempts rose 87% among 20- and 21-year-olds in that same period, and 108% among 22- and 23-year-olds.
“This is a large change in a short period of time — an unusually large change in a short period of time,” said San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, the senior author of the new research.
The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is based on close to 8 million responses to a national survey on health and substance use. It reveals that the emotional well-being of younger Americans is poor compared with that of their elders.
It’s also poor compared with how earlier generations felt when they were on the cusp of adulthood. In comparing rates of distress, depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior among various age groupings, the new research took account of shifts in happiness that have long been chronicled over Americans’ lifespans. In 2017, young adults born in 1999 were roughly 50% more likely than those born in 1985 to report feelings amounting to “serious psychological distress” in the previous month.
Although the jury is still out on the cause of this emotional distress, Twenge and her colleagues surmise that two related factors — these digital natives’ ubiquitous communication devices and their chronic shortage of sleep — are key factors behind their poor mental health.
“I didn’t come to that conclusion immediately or lightly. I came to that conclusion because nothing else fits,” said Twenge, the author of a book titled “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”
The increase in mental health problems comes amid the meteoric rise of smartphone ownership and young users’ early and ardent embrace of social media, Twenge said. It also tracks with evidence of a concurrent decline in sleep duration among heavy users of digital communication, she added. And it tracks with her unpublished findings that, for American adolescents, time spent in personal contact with friends declined markedly between 2008 and 2017.
Notably, the rising rates of distress, depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior in young Americans do not seem to track with the nation’s rise of income inequality or with the economic crisis of 2008, she said. In fact, the steepest declines in young Americans’ mental well-being actually came as the economy began to recover from the Great Recession.
Even school shootings or mass attacks by terrorists fail to move the needle like this, she added.
“In some ways it was a process of elimination,” Twenge said. “If you consider what affected 12- to 25-years-olds most in 2017 versus 2008, one of the biggest differences is the shift in how young people spend their leisure time.… They spend less time sleeping, less time with friends face-to-face, and more time with digital media.”
Other experts on youth mental health were more guarded in embracing that surmise.
“It is speculative,” said Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist whose 2016 research established that depression rates among adolescents and young adults rose steeply between 2005 and 2014. “We don’t have an experimental study in which we have a group of young people exposed and another group that are not exposed to social media, or that removed their digital devices from their hands and measured whether they were less depressed.”
At the same time, Mojtabai acknowledged that attributing an important role to digital technology is “plausible.”
Another factor that could be nudging up rates of reported depression: the possibility that adolescents and young adults in 2017 were more conversant than earlier generations in the language of mental health, more willing to acknowledge their psychological distress, and felt less stigma discussing the long-taboo subject of suicide.
Dr. Mark Olfson, a Columbia University psychiatrist and mental health researcher, said that explanation is “entirely possible.” But the increasing rates of suicide reflect levels of distress and despair that can’t — and shouldn’t — be minimized, he said.
The new research found that the erosion of mental health among adolescents and young adults was also more pronounced for girls and young women than among boys and young men. That, said Twenge, is in line with preliminary evidence suggesting that females, who suffer higher rates of depression to begin with, internalize the corrosive effects of shaming, trolling and cyberbullying more than their male peers do.
While Latino teens and young adults showed steep increases in measures of psychological distress, rates of depression and suicide grew most steeply among non-Latino whites and little or not at all among African Americans.
The new findings portend a dark future for the public’s mental health, since those touched early by depression are more likely to report it across their lifespan. And for new generations, the allure of digital communications is unlikely to fade.
“One wonders if this is ever going to stabilize, plateau or continue in coming years,” Mojtabai said. “And I worry about the future consequences of having early onset depression among young people,” Mojtabai said. “It’s an alarming trend.”
Olfson said that recognizing a younger person’s distress, talking about those feelings, and guiding him or her to professional help quickly cansave a life and get a Gen Zer back on track.
“When a kid becomes more irritable or pulls away from friends or school, it’s easy for parents who are busy to chalk it up to a phase. And they can clam up, which is understandable, because they’re frightened. But that’s not the thing to do,” he said. “That’s a time when parents can listen and reach out to get professional help.”
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