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What's Driving the Rise in Teen Depression?

Examining the contributing factors that have led to the increase.

ADOLESCENT DEPRESSION is on the rise. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 3.2 million 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one major depressive episode within the past 12 months. Teen who are depressed often struggle with anxiety and substance abuse as well, which is why early detection of the mood disorder can be tricky.

Symptoms of adolescent depression frequently differ from symptoms in adults. For example, youth may experience more irritability and moodiness, sleep at odd times of the day and isolate themselves from adults, particularly family members, but still long to be with peers. Adults, however, may experience insomnia, intense bouts of sadness and isolate themselves from both friends and family.

In addition to varying with age, symptoms also differ by gender. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, girls report feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, punishment, tiredness and low energy, whereas boys report more irritability, depression and suicidal thoughts. With all of this symptomatic variation and conflicting information, it’s easy to miss the warning signs and chalk up adolescent depression to “typical” teen behavior.

Consequently, many depressed kids don’t get the help they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 20 percent of youth suffering from a mental health disorder, like depression, receive treatment for their condition. This means 80 percent, or about 12 million youth, are undertreated or not treated at all, and that’s a major concern, especially as adolescent depression is on the rise.

A study published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology finds that over the past decade the number of youth with mental health disorders has more than doubled. This particular study examined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has collected data on drug and alcohol use and mental health issues in America since 1971. Survey responses from more than 200,000 youth ages 12 to 17 between 2005 to 2017 and approximately 400,000 adults between 2008 to 2017 were reviewed, and what researchers discovered was alarming. For youth, major depression increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017 – from 8.7 percent to13.2 percent, and it rose 63 percent in young adults ages 18 to 25 from 2009 (8.1 percent) to 2017 (13.2 percent).

The numbers highlight the mental health issues facing young people across the nation, and lead to the burning question: What has contributed to the increase in adolescent depression? Over the past decade, researchers have desperately sought to determine this. Unfortunately, there isn’t a conclusive answer, but there are about five common themes that have emerged from the data:

1. A modern-day diagnosis.

As an article in Johns Hopkins Health Review explains, adolescent depression is a relatively new diagnosis. Until the 1980s, mental health professionals were reluctant to diagnose youth with a mood disorder in part because the adolescent brain is still developing and they thought it would not be appropriate to diagnose someone so young with depression. Also, professionals believed that teen moodiness was perfectly normal during what is often referred to as the turbulent years.

2. Hyper-connected and overstimulated.

There’s no doubt about it, today’s teens are hyper-connected. Electronic devices are so intertwined with youth’s lives that the real world and virtual world coincide. With over 95 percent of teens having access to a smartphone and 45 percent online "almost constantly," according to a Pew Research Center study, more and more teens are turning to the internet for social support and social comparison.

The recent research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology explained that the spike in depression, distress and suicidal tendencies may be connected to the social media trends among young people. For example, it’s not uncommon for youth to measure their self-worth based on the likes and comments they get from others, which is of course an inaccurate measure of one’s personal value. It’s no surprise that social media has been linked with negative psychological outcomes for youth.

3. Uncertain times.

Each generation is influenced and shaped by the history of the time. Today’s youth have grown up in the grim shadows of post-9-11. Unfortunately, this generation knows all too well the fear of terrorism. Whether it be a lone shooter or mass terrorist attack, our nation’s youth have come to know and live with violence in their lives. From concerts to malls and restaurants to schools, today’s youth understand the stark reality that they live in a time where their sense of security can instantly be stripped away by heinous and cowardly attacks of others.

4. Not enough sleep.

Sleep disturbance, described as insomnia or hypersomnia, is one of the primary symptoms of major depressive disorder. Teens are notoriously sleep-deprived, only getting about seven hours of the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours. Time and time again, studies have indicated that youth aren’t getting enough sleep, and that can lead to a depressed mood, moodiness and irritability.

During the teen years, youth are undergoing dramatic maturational and physiological changes. Thus, the role of sleep in mental and physical health is extremely important. Good sleep has been associated with better physical, cognitive and psychological well-being. Consequently, poor sleep is related to health problems, and cognitive and psychological impairment.

5. Lack of community.

We live in stressful times. Our modern lifestyles highlight our hectic day-to-day routines, and that spills over into the lives of our children. With the go-go mentality, our community has dwindled, and as a result, our face-to-face connections have decreased.

Our lives are becoming more structured and organized. Before we became a technologically reliant and fast-paced society, our kids engaged in more unstructured play, ate less processed foods and exercised on a daily basis, but those times are fading. Today’s kids report that they feel rushed to do things and pressured to be successful.

Youth depression is a concern plaguing our nation, so much so that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that primary caregivers screen adolescents ages 12 to 18 for major depressive disorder. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Not only should medical personnel help with identifying teen depression, but the responsibility should fall on all of us. We need to create healthy and trusting relationships with our youth, and in the process revive our community.

Suffering from a mental illness can be a frightening experience, especially if you have to suffer in silence. Fortunately, there are a variety of effective depression treatments available today. If you believe that your child or a loved one is struggling with depression, please seek professional help. Depression is treatable, and the earlier it’s treated the more effective the treatment is.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.


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