The proportion of young people in the United States experiencing mood disorders and other mental health issues has increased significantly over the past 10 years, and researchers found no corresponding increase among older Americans. The findings appear online in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
“More US adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University in California. “These trends are weak or nonexistent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”
The study was based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and included more than 200,000 adolescents age 12 to 17 and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and older.
Researchers reported the following findings from their analysis:
• The rate of major depression symptoms in the last 12 months increased 52% percent in adolescents (from 8.7% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2017) and 63% in young adults age 18 to 25 (from 8.1% in 2009 to 13.2% in 2017).
• The proportion of young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days jumped 71% (from 7.7% in 2008 to 13.1% in 2017).
• The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes rose 47% (from 7.0% in 2008 to 10.3% in 2017).
The study revealed no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing depression or psychological distress. Among adults older than 65, researchers found a slight decline in psychological distress.
“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” Dr. Twenge said. Specifically, researchers cited the rise of electronic communication and digital media combined with declines in sleep duration as factors likely affecting younger people.
According to Dr. Twenge, the increase in mental health issues was sharpest after 2011, leading her to believe it is unlikely to be connected to genetics or economic challenges—which she considers good news.
“Young people can't change their genetics or the economic situation of the country, but they can choose how they spend their leisure time. First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn't interfere with sleep—don't keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime,” she said.
“Overall, make sure digital media use doesn't interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise, and sleep.”
Twenge JM, Cooper AB, Joiner TE, Duffy ME, Binau SG. Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 2019 March 14;[Epub ahead of print].