Data collected from American adolescents between 2005 and 2018 has revealed that anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, in addition to other "internalizing" problems are on the rise in young people, particularly in girls.
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The increasing prevalence of mental health issues in US teens
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Columbia University published the results of their longitudinal study this week in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, revealing the nature of mental health issues amongst US teens.
As well as finding problems like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts are on the rise, they also found that teenage girls are increasingly seeking support from mental health services.
The team is not clear on what the underlying reasons are for the data, however, they point out that other studies have also suggested that internalizing problems, including anxiety and depression, are on the rise in this age group, which helps to validate their findings.
Nationwide studies, such as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), have shown that anxiety and depression are prevalent in teenagers. The NSDUH revealed that 20% of girls aged 12 to 17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in 2017, much higher than the 8.7% of adult women who report the same issue.
Suicidal thoughts and attempts rising
In the current study, researchers analyzed long-term trends relating to adolescent mental health found within the data provided by the NSDUH. The team looked at 14 of the annual surveys, pairing them in twos to analyze seven sets of data from two consecutive years.
Results revealed that between 2005 and 2018, 19.7% of the 203,070 teens interviewed reported that they had received counseling or another form of treatment for mental health problems in the previous year. This figure did not change significantly during the 2005-2018 period.
However, when gender was taken into account, the data revealed that girls had increasingly sought treatment or counseling over this period, rising from 22.8% to 25.4% from 2005 to 2018. In contrast, the percentage of boys reporting treatment or counseling dropped from 17.8% to 16.4% during the same timeframe.
The team categorized the mental health problems reported into groups including internalizing problems such as anxiety, depression, somatization disorders, and suicidal thinking; and externalizing problems such as conduct and substance-use problems, problems at school, and relationship problems.
An analysis of these categories found that internalizing problems, in particular, were on the rise in adolescents, increasing from 48.3% in 2005 to 57.8% in 2018. Specifically, suicidal thoughts and attempts showed the greatest increase, jumping by 63.3% from 15% at the beginning of the data collection to 24.5% at the end.
The next step: Finding the underlying causes
While the researchers did not investigate the underlying causes of the trends they uncovered, they highlight that previous research has elucidated the relationship between social media use and feelings of depression.
They also point out that externalizing problems may have dropped due to the increased use of psychiatric drugs in children and the decreased levels of childhood exposure to dangerous and toxic substances that are recognized as a cause of neurological problems linked with aggression.
More research is required to explore the underlying mechanisms responsible for the trends reported on. For example, what are the factors that make girls more likely to experience internalizing problems? Finding the underlying causes for the rise in internalizing problems, particularly of suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as what makes girls more susceptible is key to developing effective methods of prevention and treatment.
Survey data confirm increases in anxiety, depression, suicidal thinking among US adolescents seeking mental health care. Eurekalert. Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2020-03/jhub-iia032320.php