“Adolescence is perhaps nature’s way of preparing parents to welcome the empty nest,” say Karen Savage and Patricia Adams in their book, The Good Stepmother. It’s certainly not news that teens tend to be difficult, moody, sulking, and generally not fun to be around. While parents of teens have wondered for decades if it could get any worse, a new study verifies that in fact, teens have more psychological problems today than they did years ago. A new study of high school and college students has found that teens and young adults have become increasingly more depressed, unstable, and narcissistic today than they were 70 years ago.
The study, which involved researchers at five universities, analyzed psychological data compiled between 1938 and 2007 on over 77,000 high school and college students. The students all took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a personality test that diagnoses mental illness and personality structure. According to the results, kids today are far more troubled than they were back in 1938, during the great Depression. Six times as many youths today tested as clinically depressed compared to back then (six percent versus one percent), and six times as many registered as anxious (five percent in 1938, but a whopping 31 percent now). Another category with soaring rates was “psychopathic deviation.” This refers to a mild form of psychopathology in which individuals think rules don’t apply to them and so act accordingly. The percentage of youth currently in that category has risen to 24 percent from five percent in 1938. In fact, teens today surpassed their 1938 predecessors in virtually every mental illness category by an average of 500 percent, with 85 percent more youth today surpassing the average score for mental health problems compared to 1938.
The depression among youth contributes to the fact that suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 24, with the rate having tripled since 1970. The subjects reported feeling significantly more isolated, misunderstood, and emotionally sensitive or unstable than in the past. They also were more likely to report worry, sadness, and dissatisfaction with life, and to show signs of narcissism.
The experts say that the precipitous decline in mental health found by the study may seriously underestimate the true scope of the problem, because so many youth these days take antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, which can mask symptoms. “Those answering the survey might have had their mental state stabilized already by drugs,” the study authors write. Given that 10 percent of the population aged six and up now takes antidepressant medication, there might be something to that idea, except, as I’ve written before, half the studies on antidepressants have found that they do nothing to boost mood, and so their benefits are arguable. In fact, there’s evidence that antidepressants actually can increase depression and contribute to suicidal ideation among teens.
On or off of medication, it’s clear that teens these days aren’t feeling so good mentally. And to what do the experts attribute all of this degeneration? The lead researcher, Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, took a hint from Michael Moore’s latest movie and blamed capitalism. “We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships,” she writes. “These results suggest that as American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life, the mental health of American youth has suffered.” In fact, UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen found in 2008 that 77% of the respondents said it was “essential” or “very important” to be financially well off.
The authors also entertain the possibility that mental health suffers when the economy suffers, but in writing that, they clearly forgot that 1938 was the crest of the depression years, before the economy recovered. Clearly, young people were much happier then. In fact, I reported recently about studies showing that longevity and health actually improve when the economy slumps.
One theory blames parental stress, saying that parents are under so much pressure that they do a lousy job of bringing up kids. “They learn from those they love,” says Dr. Bruce Rabin of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “…if role models are short tempered [or] tell children to leave them alone because they are under a lot of stress…there will be an effect on the child’s mental health development.”
Certainly studies support the idea that community isn’t what it once was. I reported previously on a study that showed that in 1984, the average person had three close confidants, but by 2004, the average person had zero. In spite of creating Facebook communities of hundreds or even thousands subscribers, many teens simply don’t connect in person the way they did in generations past. The quality of friendship isn’t the same.
I also just reported that kids these days spend an average of 13 hours daily connected to media — excluding homework time. This doesn’t leave much time for hanging out with pals…live. And, research shows strong links between depression and time spent immersed in media. One study last year found that each extra hour daily spent watching television boosts the odds of being depressed by eight percent. Part of the problem with the media overload is that it keeps lots of kids up late at night, and studies also show that less sleep correlates to more depression, with teens who go to bed past midnight 24 percent more likely to be depressed and 20 percent more likely to commit suicide compared to kids tucked in by 10.
In fact, there are scores of other theories being bandied about — expectations too high, expectations too low, too much praise, too little praise, and so on. There’s also plenty of evidence showing that eating junk foods and sweets and getting fat compromises mental health. At least on one point, though, the experts concur. In the words of the authors of the study, “Whether this trend has topped out or will continue upward remains to be seen, but these results suggest that the demand for mental health services is likely to increase in the coming decade.” That most likely means big business for the antidepressant manufacturers, given that treatment for mental health seems to increasingly be defined as a prescription for a happy pill…even if it mostly doesn’t work. As I’ve written before, recent trends have led antidepressant prescriptions to triple since 1988 while the percent of depressed patients seeing psychotherapists has declined dramatically.