More than 36 percent of teenage girls in America are depressed or have suffered a recent major depressive episode, according to a study published in Translational Psychiatry. For boys, the rate is 13.6 percent. What are we doing to the kids?
It isn't just one study. Research throughout the last several decades has shown a consistent pattern of rising anxiety, depression, suicide and suicide attempts among American adolescents. A 2001 paper published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that the suicide rate tripled between 1950 and 1990.
The rise in depression and other psychological suffering cannot be written off as an artifact of changing definitions. As Psychology Today reported, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test of psychological well-being, has been administered to large samples of college students throughout the United States going as far back as 1938. A similar test called the MMPI-A has been given to samples of high school students since 1951. The results are unambiguous: Children, adolescents, and young adults have all experienced dramatic increases in anxiety and depression over the past several decades. The rates of these ailments were much lower during the Great Depression, World War II and the turbulent 1970s than they are today.
I asked a New England college administrator with many decades of experience what the most notable change was that he saw among the students. I was wondering if perhaps their general knowledge might have declined over the years, or their political tolerance atrophied. What he said surprised me: "The most outstanding thing that has changed is the enormous growth in the number of students with mental health issues."
Nationwide, student health centers are inundated with mental health concerns. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ohio State in the past five years has seen a 43 percent increase in students seeking mental health counseling. At the University of Central Florida, the requests for mental health treatment have increased 12 percent annually for the past decade.
Young people who are not in college are even more prone to depression and anxiety, if less likely to seek help. A Child Trends report suggests that adults 18-29 living below the poverty line were twice as likely as others to report depressive symptoms.
Something is robbing young people of happiness and well-being. Figuring out what it is requires a certain modesty. Still, you will find many a facile explanation accompanying reports of these findings. Time magazine, for example, fingered social media. "It's hard for many adults to understand how much of teenagers' emotional life is lived within the small screens on their phones." An Ohio State therapist who spoke to The Wall Street Journal cited "the economy, the rising cost of tuition, the impact of social media and a so-called helicopter-parenting style that doesn't allow adolescents to experience failure."
There is no doubt that social media brings out the savage in human nature (Twitter is enough to depress me), and surely "helicopter" parents should permit their kids to grow up, but these explanations strike me as wide of the mark.
The most consequential social change of the past several decades is not the dawn of social media but changing family structure, and it turns out that adolescent depression and suicide are closely linked with divorce and single parenting. Teens who live with a single parent have twice the rate of suicide attempts as those who live with both parents. The same is true of other forms of distress and self-harm. To understand why kids are so anxious and depressed, we should look not just to their phones but to their homes.
Still, if a couple has divorced or never married in the first place, all is not lost. One reason family instability is so hard on kids is that the financial, social and work pressures the parents endure tend to make them less available for their kids. Single parents can try to compensate. Even if teenagers are living in a single-parent home, the quality of their relationships with their parents remains critically important to their risk of depression. Adolescents whose mothers were warm and supportive during disagreements, rather than angry or argumentative, showed lower rates of sadness, anxiety and lack of self-control. A study from Israel found that children who were close to their parents suffered fewer psychological effects after being under rocket attack than children who did not receive such support. Adolescents who engaged in activities with their mothers were less likely to commit suicide than those who didn't.
Someone coined the term "fragile families" to describe the social experiment we've been undergoing for the past several decades. The suspicion that it has led to fragile psyches is strong.