The rise of anxiety and depression in Gen Z, charted

Rates of depression, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts and actions among U.S. residents have increased over the past decade, particularly among teens and young adults, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Study details  

For the study, researchers analyzed mental health data from CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The data, which spanned from 2005 to 2017, represented more than 200,000 U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17 and about 400,000 U.S. adults.

Findings

The researchers found rates of depression, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts and actions remained mostly stable among older adults from 2005 to 2017, but increased significantly among adolescents and younger adults.

For instance, the researchers found that the share of individuals reporting symptoms of major depression increased by:

  • 63%, rising from 8.1% in 2009 to 13.2% in 2017, among U.S. adults ages 18 to 25; and
  • 52%, rising from 8.7% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2017, among U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17.

According to the researchers, girls more commonly experienced symptoms of major depression than boys. The researchers found that, in 2017, one out of every five adolescent girls had experienced symptoms of major depression over the past year.

The researchers also found the number of individuals ages 18 to 25 who reported serious psychological distress, which includes feeling nervous and hopeless, increased by 71%, rising from 7.7% in 2008 to 13.1% in 2017.

According to researchers, deaths from suicide among adults ages 18 to 19 increased by 56% between 2008 and 2017, and the rate of suicidal thoughts among such individuals increased by up to 68%. Meanwhile, the researchers found suicide attempts increased by 87% among adults ages 20 to 21 and by 108% among adults ages 22 to 23.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the report's lead author, said, "This is a large change in a short period of time—an unusually large change in a short period of time."

'Cultural trends' might play a role

The researchers said younger adults and adolescents might have disproportionately higher rates of depression, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts and actions because "cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger [individuals] compared to older [individuals]." In particular, the researchers said social media and a lack of sleep might be driving increases in poor mental health.

Twenge said, "I didn't come to that conclusion immediately or lightly. I came to that conclusion because nothing else fits." She continued, "In some ways it was a process of elimination. If you consider what affected 12- to 25-years-olds most in 2017 versus 2008, one of the biggest differences is the shift in how young people spend their leisure time. … They spend less time sleeping, less time with friends face-to-face, and more time with digital media."

However, Ramin Mojtabai, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist, said the role social media has played on mental health is "speculative." He said, "We don't have an experimental study in which we have a group of young people exposed and another group that are not exposed to social media, or that removed their digital devices from their hands and measured whether they were less depressed." But Mojtabai acknowledged it is "plausible" for social media to have had an effect.

Robert Crosnoe, chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin and president of the Society for Adolescence, separately added, "There really aren't data that show a strong connection between these two things. I think this increase in mental health issues is real and is something we need to be concerned about, but until we know exactly what's causing it, I don't think it's so easy for us to put the blame on any one thing."

Further, Crosnoe said, "There is this narrative out there of teenagers going off the cliff, [but] by most indicators, they seem to be doing pretty well, relative to what was going on 20 years ago," when teens engaged in risky behaviors at higher rates. He said, "The majority of adolescents are doing great in terms of mental health. … I'm not willing to say that we have a widespread problem on our hands when it's only 13% of the population" (Bahrampour, Washington Post, 3/14; Neighmond, "Shots," NPR, 3/14; Healy, Los Angeles Times, 3/14).

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