Anxiety, Depression, and the American Adolsecent

The cover story for Time magazine, November 7, 2016, by Susanna Schrobsdorff, tells of American teens who are anxious, depressed and overwhelmed. Experts are struggling over how to help them. Schrobsdorff’s article is strikingly titled “The Kids Are Not All Right.” The article begins with the story of Faith-Ann Bishop, who was in eighth grade the first time she cut herself. She took a piece of metal from a pen and sliced into the soft skin near her ribs. There was blood and a sense of deep relief. “It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds,” she said. “For a while, I didn’t want to stop, because it was my only coping mechanism. I hadn’t learned any other way.”

Faith-Ann indicated that pain from the superficial wound was a momentary escape from the anxiety she was fighting constantly, about grades, about her future, about relationships, about everything. For Faith-Ann, cutting was a secret, compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that she and millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with. Some experts say self-harm among adolescents is on the rise. Self-Harm Increasing Among Youth.

As Schrobsdorff indicates in her article, adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they are called spoiled or cuddled or “helicoptered.” But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. According to the Time article, anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. This is a problem that cuts across all demographics – suburban, urban and rural; those who are college-bound and those who aren’t.

It is very alarming to learn from Schrobsdorff’s article that in 2015 about 3 million teens aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.) More than 2 million reported experiencing depression that impaired their daily function. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 30% of girls and 20% of boys – totaling 6.3 million teens – have had an anxiety disorder. Even more alarming, Schrobsdorff reports that only about 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.

These adolescents are, according to Schrobsdorff, “…the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.” Schrobsdorff also reminds us that “…every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident.” Faith-Ann Bishop told Schrobsdorff, “We’re the first generation that cannot escape our problems at all. We’re all like little volcanoes. We’re getting this constant pressure, from our phones, from our relationships, from the way things are today.”

Other Concerns Not Discussed in the Time Article

From a distance, depression can seem like no big deal. After all, who doesn’t feel a little down in the dumps now and then? But depression in America is a big deal, and, according to the CDC, it is projected to become an even bigger and more serious issue in the next four years. CDC Mental Health Report. Mental illness is defined as “all diagnosable mental disorders” or “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.8 million, or 18.5%) experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13 to 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8 to 15, the estimate is 13%.3. Mental Health By the Numbers, National Alliance of Mental Health.

Although adolescent depression may not differ significantly from adult depression, the adolescent brain is different, and it seems possible that these differences may affect teenagers and their responses to depression. Teenage propensity for risk-taking and poor decision making can turn untreated depression into a dangerous game. A study released by researchers at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy suggests that depressed teenagers are more likely to self-medicate with marijuana and illicit drugs. Depressed teenagers are almost twice as likely as their non-depressed peers to become psychologically dependant on marijuana.

The White House study also suggested that use of drugs like marijuana can make depression worse. There was a higher percentage of youth with a major depressive episode in 2014 than in each year from 2004 and 2012 – similar to the 2013 estimate. Youth who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year were more likely than other youth to have used illicit drugs.

When adolescents are depressed, they have a tough time believing that their outlook can improve. But professional treatment can have a dramatic impact on their lives. It can put them back on track and bring them hope for the future.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK.

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