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Mental health problems rise significantly among young Americans

Lydia Turnage, 23, graduated from Georgetown University last year and attends law school at Columbia University. She quit Instagram a couple of months ago and said she feels happier now. (Tara Bahrampour/The Washington Post)

Gilbert Saldana, 22, still has a couple of months before he graduates from Georgetown University, but anxiety about his future is already keeping him up at night.

“I’m almost in the job world, and it really weighs down on me,” said the government major, who keeps up with his fellow students by looking at their résumés on LinkedIn. “Everyone tries to put themselves in competition with everyone else. . . . There’s more of a focus on the professional aspect rather than on having fun or doing things that are focused on the college experience.”

He is not alone. Over the past decade or so, rates of depression, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts and actions have risen significantly among people 26 and younger, with some of the highest increases among women and those at higher income levels, according to a study of a broad swath of young Americans.

The report, published Thursday in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology, looked at survey data from more than 600,000 adolescents and adults. It found that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of people reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 52 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds and 63 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds; the rate for both groups is now 13.2 percent. Serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions also rose by 70 percent in young adults, from 7.7 percent to 13.1 percent.

The percentages for older adults remained stable over the same period, indicating that whatever is driving the changes is disproportionately affecting those who are young, the report said, noting that “cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger people compared to older people.”

The report, which used data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health and relied on suicide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found the greatest upticks in young people who were wealthier and female.

The changes probably were not connected to poor financial prospects or substance abuse, the report said, noting that they occurred during a period of economic expansion and at a time when drug and alcohol use among young people has been unchanged or decreasing.

Instead, the report said, the increases may be linked to increased time spent on social media and electronic communication, along with a decrease in the sleep young people are getting. Lack of sleep is associated with depression and anxiety.

“Social media has moved from being something that about half of teens were using every day to something almost all teens are doing every day,” said the report’s lead author, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

“It used to be an optional thing, and now, especially among girls, it’s virtually mandatory,” she said. Noting that girls are more likely to use their devices for social media, while boys often prefer gaming, she called social media “the perfect place to be verbally aggressive,” which can contribute to depression and low self-esteem.

Teens who spend less time in front of screens are happier — up to a point

Jared Roseman, 20, a German and linguistics major at Georgetown, who described himself as “a generally kind of anxious person,” said constantly viewing the curated images of friends’ lives can skew one’s sense of self. “It creates a false sense of reality so that many people start to doubt themselves.”

Social media plays into an innate human and animal preoccupation with hierarchy, said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in Oakland, Calif., and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. “It offers almost a minute-to-minute update on your social status,” he said. “Every interaction you have is rated, and that’s basically what life is like for young people these days.”

Coleman said the report’s findings were not surprising.

“I certainly am hearing parents talk more than ever of kids who are really struggling,” he said. Noting the reduction in outdoor play and the rise in overprotective parenting in recent years, he added that “the message being transmitted by parents is that the world is a dangerous place.”

“Children aren’t really being allowed to be exposed to the idea that you can survive stress . . . so all of this could be affecting children’s ability to feel resilient and be resilient to everyday stressors,” he said.

The increase in adolescent depression was higher among wealthier people, rising 79 percent between 2010 and 2017 in the highest income bracket, to 14.1 percent, while increasing 55 percent, to 15.3 percent, in the lowest income group during the same period.

Among high-income families, the pressure on children to compete and succeed has increased in recent years, said Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University.

“Maintaining your parents’ standard of living is harder than it was 20 years ago,” she said. “They feel, ‘I have to get into that top university that my parents attended, and if I don’t, I have no life, I will be left behind, I won’t be able to support myself.’ ”

Lydia Turnage, 23, who graduated from Georgetown last year and is now a law student at Columbia University, said among her peers a bachelor’s degree is so common these days that getting one feels less momentous than it might have a generation or two back.

“All this work to try to get to this place, and then it feels like you’re just checking a box; it doesn’t really get you anything meaningful,” she said. “It’s caused a feeling — I don’t want to say hopelessness, but cynicism.”

That feeling is compounded by the pressure to already have a job lined up after college, she said. “It’s definitely a conversation that students are having a lot more.”

But Robert Crosnoe, chairman of the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin and the president of the Society for Adolescence, disagreed with the idea that today’s young people are on a down slide. Despite the increase in distress indicators, he said, the overall percentages are still low.

“There is this narrative out there of teenagers going off the cliff, [but] by most indicators, they seem to be doing pretty well, relative to what was going on 20 years ago,” he said, noting that pregnancy and risky behavior has gone down among adolescents while family time has increased. “The majority of adolescents are doing great in terms of mental health. . . . I’m not willing to say that we have a widespread problem on our hands when it’s only 13 percent of the population.”

However, if the numbers keep rising, that will be a problem, Crosnoe said, adding that mental health services for adolescents are inadequate.

“We are living at a time of massive inequality, where the key to social mobility in our country is higher education, but access to higher education has not expanded,” he said. “Kids sense that their futures are very uncertain, and that’s also anxiety-producing.”

Universities have responded to the heightened stress among students by offering sessions in yoga, mindfulness and healthy sleep habits. George Washington University in 2015 expanded its mental health services to include walk-ins and in 2017 began offering mental health workshops focusing on specialized topics such as the #MeToo movement or men’s emotional wellness.

But Turnage said she wishes there were a better solution to stress than “just Band-Aid fixes.”

“A lot of students feel like that’s not really helpful at the end of the day, like figuring out a way to stop it from happening is more important than trying to do something about it as it’s happening,” she said.

One solution she came up with for herself was quitting Instagram a couple of months ago. “I just felt like every time I went on it, it just made me unhappy,” she said. “I just took it off my phone. And I can tell there’s a big difference in just day-to-day mood. It really does make a difference.”