[Content warning: This article discusses mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.]
For a long time, teenagers have been characterized—generally by those older than them—as overly moody, self-centered and irrational. It’s not uncommon for adults to complain about how millennials are emotionally unstable, or to brush aside their problems as typical “teenage angst.” But in reality, these millennials have been rather upstanding. Illegal drug use among teens has been declining for several years, and far fewer adolescents are smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol than almost ever before (National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Teen Substance Use Shows Promising Decline,” 12.13.2016). Not only that, the National Center for Health Statistics has reported a record low in the teen birth rate in the U.S. (Pew Research Center, “Why Is the Teen Birth Rate Falling?,” 04.29.2016), while high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of 83.2 percent in 2015 (The Huffington Post, “United States High School Graduation Rate Reaches a Record High,” 10.17.2016).
Yet despite all the good news, researchers have noticed a disturbing trend: American adolescents are developing serious mental health problems at an alarming rate. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about three million teenagers ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in 2015 alone, and more than two million teens reported experiencing depression that impairs their daily activities (Time, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” 10.27.2016). What’s even more startling is that this number is predicted to increase. According to a study that tracked depression among young adults across the country, the number of teenagers who reported having symptoms of low self-esteem and problems with sleep and concentration rose by 37 percent just between 2015 to 2016 (Time, “There’s a Startling Increase in Major Depression Among Teens in the U.S.,” 11.15.2016).
And it’s not just depression. Researchers have found that cases of anxiety have spiked in recent times. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders have become the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18.1 percent of Americans every year (ADAA, “Facts & Sta- tistics,” 08.2017). In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 6.3 million teens in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder of some kind (Time, 10.27.2016). Unfortunately, this wide- spread phenomenon is not just affecting middle- and high-school students. Anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. According to the American College Health Association, the number of undergraduates reporting to have “overwhelming anxiety” increased significant- ly from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016 (The New York Times, “Why Are More Ameri- can Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?,” 10.11.2017).
It’s not normal “teen angst” anymore; it’s a full-scale epidemic that is bound to get worse over time if ignored. But what can be the cause of such a shocking national trend? Unfortunately, not even the researchers know for sure. Usually, there are several conspicuous reasons for adolescents to feel depressed or anxious. Being raised in abusive households, living in poverty or being surrounded by violence are all understandable causes of emotional instability. Yet, teenagers who live in well-off communities and who seemingly should have nothing to worry about tend to suffer the most. What could possibly be causing these adolescents such grief ?
Rather than one definite answer, it is most likely the result of several interwoven factors. For instance, anxiety and depression are shown to have a biological component. Scientists have already located several genes that may influence the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, such as variants of the GLRB gene, which has been linked to responses in the brain that cause us to become startled or overly fearful (ScienceDaily, “New Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders,” 02.24.2017). However, there are other relevant biological factors besides genetics. Just recently, scientists have discovered that our gut bacteria may influence the functioning of brain regions such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex,
both of which are heavily linked to anxiety and depression (ScienceDaily, “New Light on Link Between Gut Bacteria and Anxiety,” 08.24.2017). These studies found that mice with an imbalance in their gut microbiome were more likely to display anxious and depressive behaviors.
However, many experts agree that environment likely plays a larger role in the rise of mental health issues in adolescents than genetics or gut bacteria. More specifically, researchers suspect that this epidemic of intense anxiety and depression in teens may be caused by the overwhelming pressure placed on them not only to succeed but to perform better than everyone else. As a result of this pressure, both high school and college students have reported that their biggest stressor is the fact that no matter what they do, it’s never enough.
“It’s not normal ‘teen angst’ anymore; it’s a full-scale epidemic that is bound to get worse over time if ignored.”
“Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back.’ [But now,] so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy,” stated Madeline Levine, a practicing psychologist and a founder of a non-profit that works on school reform (NYT). This news probably comes as a surprise to no one. In 2013, the American Psychological Association reported that American teenagers have become the most stressed age-group in the United States (The Huffington Post, “American Teens Are Even more Stressed Than Adults,” 02.11.2014). Various culprits are likely at fault, including sleep deprivation, the uncertainty surrounding job security and the fear of not living up to people’s expectations.
Researchers have also assigned blame to the prevalence of social media and technology. With everyone connected on the internet, it’s difficult
for teens to avoid constantly comparing themselves with their peers and worrying about their digital image. Unsurprisingly, many anxious teenagers agree that social media has had a negative influence on their mental health. According to accounts by teenagers attending Mountain Valley, a residential treatment facility for adolescents suffering from severe anxiety disorder, social media played a large role in lowering self-esteem and provoking feelings of anxiety (NYT). Not only that, the students also talked about how their smartphones provided a false sense of control, which they could use to avoid talking to people and escape the stresses of school. As a result, several experts suspect that there may be a connection between the extreme spike in anxiety and depression in recent years and the wide-spread adoption of the iPhone. As Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, puts it, these dramatic trends in teen mental health issues started “exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent” (The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” 11.2017).
In the end, researchers have yet to find a conclusive answer to this troubling phenomenon. However, they agree that there is a disturbing lack of resources available to help young adults who are currently struggling with these problems. Studies show that despite the rise in mental health issues, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in mental health treatment for both teenagers and young adults (Time, 11.15.2016). Not only that, it’s highly likely that the number of adolescents who are actually struggling with anxiety and depression is greater than the reported figure since many people choose not seek help. In fact, the Child Mind Institute reported in 2015 that only 20 percent of young people with diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment (Time, 10.27.2016).
Thus, it is important to understand the true gravity of the situation and reach out to those who need help. During these times of uncertainty and hardship, it’s crucial for us to take the time to understand these individuals and aid them as best as we can rather than brush their problems aside as mere trivialities.