teen depression, depressed teen

Study Shows Increase in Anxiety, Depression in Young People

January 11, 2010 02:00 PM
by Colleen Brondou
Experts wonder whether popular culture’s emphasis on physical appearance, wealth and status is to blame for the increase in mental health issues.

More Students Struggle With Challenges of School and Life

Corroborating what school counselors have observed nationwide, a new study found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with mental health issues as students that were surveyed during the Great Depression. Jean Twenge, the study’s lead author, believes that a “popular culture increasingly focused on the external—from wealth to looks and status—has contributed to the uptick in mental health issues,” Martha Irvine wrote for the Associated Press.

Researchers analyzed responses from 77,576 high school and college students that took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) from 1938 to 2007. Five times as many students in 2007 “surpassed thresholds” in one or more mental health categories compared with students in 1938. Two categories—“hypomania” (“anxiety and unrealistic optimism”) and depression—grew at an even higher rate, with six times as many students scoring high.

Twenge says that the numbers may actually be low; she believes that students on antidepressants and other medications may have skewed the results, because these drugs help to relieve the symptoms addressed in the study.

Opinion & Analysis: Study skeptics

Though experts tend to agree that more students are accessing mental health services, some think that the increase is due to greater awareness of such services. Richard Shadick, a psychologist at Pace University, says the sample data in the MMPI study aren’t representative of all college students; as Irvine points out, many that took the MMPI questionnaire were psychology students at four-year schools.

Even so, others say the research lends validity to what has been observed at counseling centers around the country. “It actually provides some support to the observations,” Scott Hunter, director of pediatric neuropsychology at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, told Irvine.

Study author Twenge admits that more research is required before a cause can be found. Still, Hunter believes the study “also helps us understand what some of the reasons behind it might be.” Today’s youth have been reared in a “you can do anything atmosphere,” Hunter says, which “sets up a lot of false expectation” that can lead to profound disappointment.

Background: Previous mental health studies

Twenge has studied the affect of pop culture on young people and their mental health for years. Her 2006 book, “General Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” looked at data from 1.3 million young people to draw conclusions on the differences between generations with regard to issues such as self-esteem and anxiety. In 2007, Twenge spoke with NPR on the rise in narcissism among college students and how the trend might affect their personal relationships.

In December 2008, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that nearly half of 19- to 25-year-olds have at least one psychiatric disorder. Even though some of the conditions reported were fairly mild, one of the coauthors of the study, Dr. Mark Olfson, believes that many young adults often don’t get the help they need: less than 25 percent of young adults get treatment.

Related Topic: Teen suicide rate

Some question whether government warnings about antidepressants were partly to blame for a 2004 increase in teen suicides. Also in 2004, teen antidepressant use dropped after the Food and Drug Administration required warning labels indicating that children could have suicidal thoughts while taking the medications.

Reference: Mental illness

FindingDulcinea’s “7 Sites to Help You Cope with Mental Illness” offers online resources for more information on finding a therapist, treatment options and support groups.

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