Mental health problems in young adults on the rise

A new study has revealed that mental health problems among young adults and adolescents are on the rise. Over the last few years there has been a steep rise in episodes of depression and psychological distress among the younger population says the study.

The study titled, “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005-2017,” appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

According to lead author Professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University, more and more teenagers and young adults are opening up about mental health problems than ever before.

In her book titled, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood”, she explains why teenagers and young adults these days are lonely and disconnected from each other.

She blames social media and smartphones and smart devices for this. “More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” she said.

The team gathered and analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This database looks at lifestyle habits of the participants. Over 600,000 Americans of different ages were part of the database and the survey was conducted between 2005 and 2017.

All cases of major depression, severe psychological distress, suicide rates, suicide-related outcomes etc. were measured during the follow-up period using questionnaires. Some of the questions were framed to ask if the participants ever felt “so sad or depressed that nothing could cheer them up.”

Results revealed that for all participants over the age of 18 severe distress episodes over the past month were highest between 2008 and 2017. This rise was greatest among young adults. In 2008 around 5 percent of the adults aged between 30 and 34 were experiencing serious distress while in 2017 there was a 33 percent rise and now 6.5 percent were experiencing distress. Among 20 to 21-year-olds, the numbers rose from 8 percent in 2008 to 14.4 percent in 2017. This was a 78 percent increase.

It was noted that rates of suicides and attempts to suicide were higher for teenagers and young adults over the study period but were lower in 2017 for those over the age of 30. Twenge believes the difference in the incidence among the younger population and the older ones is significant.

The Great Recession could be to blame but more relevant are the social changes at present. She says smartphones became available at around 2012 and it has been affecting sleep among youngsters. Sleep inadequacy has been linked to poor mental health, she explained.

Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said Twenge. She and others have urged parents to ensure that phone use among youngsters is limited and monitored. They add that exposure during formative years may do more harm than earlier thought. “These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups."

Professor Jean Twenge, Lead Author

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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