DES MOINES -- Afamily in northeast Iowa lost its farm two years ago, and both parents took low-paying jobs in town. Their oldest daughter, 20, left and within months had pleaded guilty to stealing money from her employer. Her 17-year-old brother turned to alcohol and has been suicidal.

A high-school senior from a small town in northern Missouri displayed serious behavior problems in school. She finally confided to a counselor that her father had become a hard drinker and was abusing her and her mother.

In southern Illinois, drunk driving among rural teenagers is considered "epidemic." For the first time, they also are using crack, and there has been an increase in intravenous drug use. Ten young people in a treatment center have tested positive for the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

These and other troubling scenes are increasingly being played out in rural areas throughout the nation -- from the Farm Belt to the Deep South to remote Indian reservations -- shattering the myth that rural America is somehow immune from urban ills.

In a recent survey by the National Rural Development Institute, rural children fared worse than their urban and suburban counterparts in 34 of 39 categories, including substance abuse, depression, teenage pregnancies, crime and child abuse. "The trends are quite disturbing," said Doris Helge, the study's author. "Social and economic strains facing rural students are at least as difficult as those facing inner-city youth."

The increased risk to rural youth ranks among the most distressing aftershocks of the economic hardships wrought by the farm crisis of the 1980s, according to academics, mental health workers and rural outreach caseworkers.

"The pressures are tremendous," said one central Iowa woman whose family recently lost the farm they thought her 14-year-old son would one day inherit.

"Depression is an ongoing battle," she said. "It is for me, and I know it is for {my son}. It's not having any money and not having any time. The family suffers."

Pressures like that, experts say, are forcing a fundamental change in the character of life for rural youths, increasing the chances that those who can leave will. But they are unlikely to have the skills for jobs away from the fields and small towns.

"It's the hopelessness that is most difficult for them," said Teresa Swalla, a rural outreach caseworker for more than 100 families in six Iowa counties. "Kids thought that they had roots, and they need roots now, but they don't know where their roots are."

The l4-year-old boy whose family lost their farm clings to the hope that he will one day be a farmer, but he knows today's financial hardships limit his options. "When we are low on money it gets to my parents, then it gets to me, then it gets to me at school. It's a chain reaction," he said. "It's kinda like eating a rotten apple."

The afflictions of rural Americans read like a laundry list of the nation's most vexing social problems. Alcohol remains the No. 1 abused substance in rural areas. Long embraced as a rite of passage, even condoned by some parents, drinking has escalated to dangerous levels. A study of southern Illinois counties found that in the last six months, 42 percent of rural teenagers said they had driven a car after drinking or using drugs.

Driving under the influence "has reached epidemic proportions among youth in this rural population," said Paul Sarvela, a Southern Illinois University researcher who wrote the study. "Most people think, erroneously, that drug and alcohol abuse are restricted to cities."

While teenagers once drank to gain acceptance, many now are drinking "because of pain," one mental health worker said. Bill Heffernan, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, pointed to a survey of agriculture students there. "I was amazed at how much depression there was," he said. "A substantial number reported problems with sleeping and eating disorders. They are really very bitter about agriculture. The income is too low, the risk is too high and the hours are too long.

"What really worries me is that these are the ones who are studying agriculture and escaped to college. What about the students who can't get out of rural areas?"

Rural areas also have higher rates of school dropout and teenage pregnancy than urban and suburban ones. In some southern Illinois counties, the teenage pregnancy rate rivals that of inner-city Chicago.

In addition to longstanding problems, the farm crisis brought a new one -- the single-parent family. Latchkey children, rare only a decade ago, abound, presenting a unique problem when the only neighbor might be miles away.

Paul Sundet, director of the Missouri Youth Initiative, said single-parent families are the fastest-growing segment of rural Midwest families. The flip side, he said, is that in Missouri, the greatest percentage of poor children -- 42 percent -- live in rural areas. "We are beginning to realize that we are raising a generation that is not only unproductive and not prepared for employment, but dependent," he said.

It is a process that many believe has been evolving for years. Studies more than 20 years ago found that the problems facing rural youth were comparable to those of their urban counterparts.

But some mental health workers say today's problems are more intense. "We are seeing far more depression among adolescents," said Joan Blundall, director of the Northwest Iowa Mental Health Center in Spencer. "There is a loss of dreams. Kids see their parents in service jobs earning minimum wage with no benefits. Kids don't see a payoff for working hard."

There was an enduring perception that somehow the close-knit family in rural America prevented many calamities. That notion is being eroded. "We've seen evidence that the family structure in the rural Midwest may not have been as strong as we thought it was for a long time," said Jim Meek, who directs a federally funded rural family assistance program through Iowa State University.

His research in Iowa indicates that up to 20 percent of the rural population in this agriculture-dominated state is suffering from some major social problem such as poverty, drug addiction or alcoholism, or domestic abuse. The problems fester, he said, because many rural areas lack services.