Youth more depressed than in Depression

High school and college students exhibit more anxiety and mental health problems than young people in the Great Depression, reports a study analyzing survey responses from 1938 to 2007.

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State professor who authored the study, speculates that “a popular culture increasingly focused on the external – from wealth to looks and status – has contributed” to the rise in mental health issues.

In the depths of the Depression, only 1 percent of young people surveyed were considered clinically depressed; by 2007 that was up to six percent.

Twenge said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.

Are young people  more stressed — or more likely to complain about their problems?

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  1. Is popular culture really more focused on the external? I recall reading a fair bit of literature from the Victorian era where characters felt tension from the focus on wealth, status and looks. For example, in Little Women, Meg and Amy suffer in their own ways from their family’s (and Meg’s later husbands) lack of relative wealth.

  2. “a popular culture increasingly focused on the external”…maybe it’s precisely the opposite. Maybe it’s about people increasingly focused on *themselves*.

    TV stations can’t even give a weather report anymore by saying “here’s the weather”…it has to be “here’s *your* weather,” as if the same weather wasn’t shared by thousands or millions of other people.

  3. Growing up in the 50s, I don’t remember ever encountering the idea that everyone was supposed to be happy all the time. “Down times” were an expected part of life and people just dealt with life’s ups and downs; stiff-upper-lip style. Recent research has found that to be a more effective way of dealing with life’s bumps than letting it all out. That was also true of marriage; no one expected the honeymoon to last forever or one’s spouse to meet all needs. Marriage was a lifetime partnership that evolved and changed over time. Self-esteem was a non-concept, as was self-expression, but self-control was explicitly promoted as an absolute virtue. We’d be much better off, today, with more self-control of all kinds.

  4. Dr. Scott Peck wrote: “”Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
    When I think about my father, who grew up in the Great Depression and fought in WWII, I think he embodied the truth that Dr. Peck wrote about. By contrast, when I observe my own children and their generation, I think they tend to believe that life should be easy and enjoyable and that something is wrong when it is not.
    I suspect that the different rates of depression between my father’s generation and the current one is caused by different expectations about life.

  5. David Foster – I think the author meant a popular culture focused on external things like looks and wealth and status, as opposed to internal things like living up to your values.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    We have, since the Great Depression, seen a huge growth in the therapeutic field from shrinks to social workers to related classes for teachers and pastors and, in many cases, parents.
    It would be strange ifso many more people looking for something wouldn’t find it.

  7. Most folks during the Great Depression had an intact nuclear family and typically a large extended family close by to offer support during tough times. Today that familial safety net is much less available. Only a minority of kids grow up in a household headed by married biological parents, and even those who do often live far from grandparents & other relatives.

  8. Tracy W…”I think the author meant a popular culture focused on external things like looks and wealth and status, as opposed to internal things like living up to your values.” I’m sure that’s what the author meant, but those things aren’t new…”keeping up with the Jones” was (supposedly) the big deal during the 1950s, for instance, and “Vanity Fair” didn’t have the title it did because all the characters were mainly concerned with the state of their souls.

    But I suspect even Becky Sharp would have found it strange to have magazines with titles like “Self.”

    Also, the rather bizarre phenomenon described here seems relevant.

  9. Simple depression would be a piece of cake. I am seeing large numbers of students with serious disorders and laundry lists of mental illnesses. I can’t speak to a cause, but the effects on education are not small.

  10. Cranberry says:

    Lightly Seasoned, has the rate of incidence of serious disorders among your school’s student body as a whole increased over the span of your career? Could your school be drawing less stable students, because it’s getting a reputation as a “good place” for certain types of kids? Or, do you think there’s been a change in this generation as a whole?

    David Foster, I’m old-fashioned, perhaps, but I, too, would give a role to our popular media. In the ’50s, or ’30s, it was not nearly as intrusive as today. Now, a family or individual must make a concerted effort _not_ to bathe in the media sea. Particularly for females, I find it difficult to name positive role models. Negative, self-destructive partiers, and people who need professional help? Yes. A public figure you’d trust to look after your plants and cat for a weekend? (very hard.)

  11. I don’t think 10 years is statistically significant, and I wonder if I have a reputation for doing OK with them and therefore see more on my roster. Since we’re a public school, our student body is drawn from a geographic area (some do pay tuition, but not a huge number) — no real choice other than buying the house. Our geographic area is very stable.

    This generation is more mentally ill than I remember my generation being. I will say kids who have acute mental illness such as depression/anxiety are generally in the midst of divorce/upheaval, etc., while the chronic stuff is simply more serious.

  12. This is the sort of topic which causes everyone to trot out their own pet peeve.

    Very recently, as my oldest children approach high school age, I’ve become aware of how little freedom we give teenagers, in comparison to earlier generations. Adults (as a whole) seem to want to limit teenagers’ freedoms, in the name of “safety, health,” etc.

    Earlier generations of teenagers were able to work, drive, drink, marry, and take on adult responsibilities at much younger ages. I think that treating physical adults (late teens) as children is not good for their mental health.

  13. Lightning says:

    I thing it’s a very powerfull step in the right direction to have depression and anxiety issues becoming more mainstream in both kids and adults alike’s ability to verbalize. Do you really think kids are so focused on themselves or a product of a society more progressive in enabeling people to speak about a once taboo subject? I think it’s a little of both. I constantly read articles qouting percentages and increases on rising #’s of all types of illnesses. Many ligitimate I’m sure but don’t you ever wonder how many of these #’s are actually rising or are we just more aware of things once overlooked due to lack of modern technology? Let’s face it… there’s always going to be an abuser or an actress when it comes to anything…ligitimate insurance claims and those who cash in and cost us all when we really need it. Junkies convincing a physician they really have an ailment just to score a fix etc… I believe many run their kids for a quick fix because they themselves are to lazy or to into “themselves” to give their kids the time of day. “Joe’s sad today, qiuck run him to a shrink he must be depressed.” Meds in pocket and the cycle begins. But please do remember that this is a real challenge that exists for many. Depression can work it’s way into the brain and literally alter your brains chemical makeup. Give it a break and let’s not send society back 50 years and have people suffer in silence. That can’t be healthy at all.

  14. Clinical depression was under-reported during the depression. Now you’re deemed to have a clinical depression if you’ve got a case of the blues. Not only that. Clinical depression was stigmatized as late as the 1970’s. Anyone remember George McGovern’s first running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO), who was dumped by McGovern when it became known he had been treated for depression with EST? The statistics are meaningless due to the vast differences in reportage and self-awareness between the two eras. Moreover, Depression-era folks were more likely to keep it quiet and suck it up. In our current age of whining, people who don’t need it are prescribed Prozac or Wellbutrin. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had several clinical depressions and I thank God for modern pharmaceuticals that effectively treat the biological cause of this illness, but this researcher is comparing cantaloupe to kumquats.

  15. Kids these days are human, just like us (OK, mostly). Yes, their lives are different than ours were, but our lives were vastly different than children in 1740’s France (to be random). One thing that literature teaches is that really, we’re all the same.

  16. Cranberry says:

    But, the students aren’t identifying themselves as “depressed,” or whatever. The researchers are defining their responses as signs of more mental health problems.

    “Led by Twenge, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI.”

    So, thousands of high school or college students have taken the _same diagnostic instrument_ for seventy years. The responses to the questions have, on the whole, grown less stable (as a group) over time, even though there are many more medications available, and prescribed, to treat different conditions such as depression. That’s very worrying, because in this case, the researchers are comparing apples to apples. Although our society offers young people many more luxuries than were available in 1938, they aren’t happier or more stable.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    If material goods were the issue, Laura Ingalls and her siblings would have been basket cases.
    Some years ago, Charles Murray wrote an article entitled, “What’s So Bad About Being Poor?”
    He had a caveat for folks who were really poor–no home, no food, no medical care–and spoke of the rest of what we call poor.
    He set up a hypothetical. An affluent family whom you know to be easy with morals, willing to spend money on a kid but not love or attention, send the kid abroad, to camp, to boarding school. A family where the kids are raised with love and discipline but wear patched pants and their idea of a night out is a potluck at the church to see a missionary’s slides.
    You are going to die and you get to choose which family your kid goes to.
    Figure out why you chose which family and you’ll know more about poverty–of several kinds.
    Figure out why nobody ever thought the Ingalls were poor, and you’ll know more.
    Until not too long ago, most of the world’s work was done by teenagers, their elders being dead or crippled by disease or accident or overwork.
    Today, there’s nothing as useless as a teenager, and they know it. At least, babies are cute.


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