Teenage mental-health crisis: Rates of depression have soared in past 25 years

Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years Illustration by Matt Murphy


On most counts, young people’s lives are improving. Drinking, smoking and drug-taking are down in the UK; teen pregnancies are at their lowest level for nearly half a century. Yet there is growing evidence that teens are in the grip of a mental-health crisis. It is as if, rather than acting out, young people are turning in on themselves.

Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. The number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 and, in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have also almost doubled. In a 2016 survey for Parent Zone, 93 per cent of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers and 90 per cent thought the issues were getting more severe, with 62 per cent dealing with a pupil’s mental-health problem at least once a month and an additional 20 per cent doing so on a weekly or even daily basis.

With celebrities (Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Alastair Campbell) increasingly talking openly about their own mental illnesses, there is much greater awareness than there used to be and correspondingly less stigma, making it easier for teenagers to acknowledge their problems. This undoubtedly skews the figures (insofar as there are figures: we were very bad at measuring young people’s mental health in the past). But even if you accept that there’s more reporting than there was a decade or two ago, pretty much everyone agrees that something very disturbing is happening.

Those who are worried include David Cameron, the first Prime Minister ever to have talked about teenage mental health. Last month he personally announced new money and the introduction of waiting times for teenagers with eating disorders. The Duchess of Cambridge has also made young people’s mental health one of her major interests. A Girl Guides’ attitudes survey found that mental health was one of the most pressing concerns, with 62 per cent of those surveyed knowing a girl their age who has struggled with mental-health problems.

Stephen Fry is one of several celebrities to have spoken openly about his mental illness (Getty)

Mental illness can feel like a personal indictment to parents. It is known that children who are looked after by their local authority are particularly susceptible and, conversely, that there are protective factors linked to a stable home life. Nonetheless, children are often reluctant to talk to their parents, and parents slow to respond, despite the fact that swift intervention is important to recovery. But there’s no point in parents blaming themselves: mental illness is caused by a combination of factors and it can strike anywhere. Being middle class, affluent, in a two-parent household, loved, cherished, and successful at school is no guarantee of anything.

Fixers, the charity offering young people the opportunity to create media campaigns, says that 69 per cent of the 18,000 young people they have worked with have wanted to raise awareness of mental health. “We’re a barometer of young public opinion,” says CEO Margo Horsley, “and the resounding majority want to show people the tough realities of living with anxiety, depression, self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, diabulimia, body dysmorphia, binge-eating disorder … the list goes on.” The stories of many of the young people they have worked with suggest that when mental illness strikes, it feels elemental, chemical and incomprehensible; they commonly liken it to possession.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t query whether there are things going on to do with the way we live our lives. Unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies. In his book The Happiness Industry, William Davies assembles evidence (including from Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level and Carles Muntaner of the World Health Organisation) to demonstrate that strongly materialist and competitive values lead to higher levels of mental distress. When people feel buffeted by forces over which they have no control, he argues, we conclude it is they who need correcting, rather than the forces: “In the long history of scientifically analysing the relationship between subjective feelings and external circumstances, there is always a tendency to see the former as more changeable than the latter.”

David Cameron was the first Prime Minister ever to have talked about teenage mental health (Getty)

We are educating young people for a world that is unlikely to exist in 20 years’ time and, arguably, not equipping them with the skills they need for the one that will. And then there’s the internet, which has grown up at the same time as the explosion in teen mental illness, and is often seen as part of the problem, with cyberbullying and worries about body image (created partly by selfie culture) often cited as triggers.

Social media doesn’t create bullying or anxieties about body image (it’s worth noting that rates of bullying haven’t risen in the last 10 years). But technology can amplify problems or give them new forms of expression. Cyberbullying can be particularly painful. But the trouble with seeing social media as the problem is that it’s the technology that then gets addressed rather than the underlying issues. And after the digital detox, the problems remain.

For most people, the effects of technology are noticeable in the changes, mostly small but cumulative, in our moods, manners, feelings and ways of going about our lives. Facebook’s famous experiment, published in July 2014, in which it doctored the feeds of some of its users to spread unhappiness, proved that social media can affect our moods (as if we needed proof that Facebook makes us feel as though everyone else is eating better food and hanging out with cooler people than we are). The curated lives displayed online can make anyone feeling even slightly vulnerable feel really wretched.

That said, social media can also provide support for young people, especially for those struggling with their sexuality (44 per cent of 16-24 year-old LGBT people have considered suicide) or feeling isolated. Technology is an easy target for adults: it’s new, it moves faster than we do and it’s very visible in young people’s lives. But it may be that some of the energy adults spend worrying about technology would be better spent worrying about the world that creates and shapes both social media and the psyches of our children.

The Duchess of Cambridge has made young people’s mental health one of her major interests (Getty)

There is much about mental illness that may well be very difficult to prevent: biological susceptibility, unavoidable triggers like bereavement. It makes sense to focus on the dearth of early-stage therapies that are known to make a difference because, at the moment, as Brennan says, “we are investing in having a sick adult population: 75 per cent of adult mental illness emerges before the age of 25 and only 50 per cent of young people are getting any kind of care.”

Still, when you are tackling an epidemic, you need to think about more than treatment. We also need to ask hard questions about why children feel so at odds with a world that ought, after all, to be all about them and their future.

Source:  independent

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