Depression rates in the US are soaring.
Over the past decade, more and more people in nearly every age group, financial bracket, and circumstance across the country have reported worrying symptoms. They’re losing interest in life, lacking zest for learning new things, and finding that activities they previously enjoyed feel meaningless.
Suicide death rates are also up 34% across the US since 2000, and the spike is especially pronounced among groups including men working in construction, stay-at-home moms, and students, according to recent Centers for Disease Control data.
But nowhere is this troubling trend more notable than among young people as shown in a study published last week in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Based on eight years of data from more than 600,000 people across the US, the researchers discovered that more young people — particularly those in their early 20s — are going through sustained periods in which they’re losing interest in life and leisure activities, at rates much higher than that same age group did just a decade ago.
These are signs of a major depressive episode; typical symptoms can include feeling depressed, fatigued, worthless, or guilty. People experiencing these episodes often also do not get the right amount of sleep, struggle to concentrate, and may think about death often.
The graph below charts depression trends from a nationwide, anonymous survey that asks participants some straightforward questions about their mental health. (The survey is designed to gain information about people’s drug and alcohol use.) The data clearly shows depression rates soaring among kids as young as 12 and young adults up to 25.
No age group over 25 has a depression rate higher than 10%, but the younger groups all do, and the rate among college-age adults (20-21) has increased the most.
Lead study author Jean Twenge, who wrote the book “iGen,” told Business Insider that these trends shouldn’t be dismissed as unavoidable generational shifts.
“We have a generation of young people who are suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts at a much higher rate, and we should stop trying to explain that away and recognize that it’s a problem and try to solve it,” Twenge said. “This trend also shows up in suicide. It also shows up in emergency-room admissions for self-harm behaviors, for suicide attempts — behaviors that can’t be explained away by self-reports.”
Depression in teenagers can be especially dangerous
Depression is common: The World Health Organization estimates that on any given day, more than one in every 20 Americans is depressed. A major depressive episode isn’t just a single bad day; rather, psychologists define it as a sustained loss of interest or lack of pleasure in life that affects a person’s regular routines and day-to-day functioning for two weeks or more.
A bout of this kind of depression experienced as a kid, teen, or young adult can set people up for future mental-health troubles. Research shows that people who experience depression in their formative years often have more frequent and more severe depressive recurrences throughout their lives.
“When followed into adulthood, those with adolescent-onset depression (compared to those without) are twice as likely to have a major depressive episode, five times more likely to attempt suicide, and are at increased risk for death by suicide,” the study authors wrote.
‘Face-to-face social interaction has declined’
One factor that Twenge believes may be behind the spiking depression rates among young people: a decrease in social interaction.
A second study she authored, published Wednesday in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examined four decades of surveys about how young people spend their time. The results showed that high-school seniors today spend a full hour less socializing in person than teens in the late ’80s did. High-school sophomores aren’t partying like they used to either; they attend 17 fewer parties than the sophomores of the ’80s did.
That’s not because today’s kids are diligently doing more homework or spending more time on extracurricular activities. The extra time away from friends and peers is eaten up by screens, Twenge said. Her findings suggest that as teens spend more time alone on their devices, they’re getting lonelier and feeling more left out.
“Face-to-face social interaction among teens has declined during the digital age, and that has mental-health implications,” Twenge said. “Face-to-face social interaction tends to protect against depression in a way that digital interaction does not.”
A wealth of studies shows that from day one, human gaze is a crucial ingredient in social interaction. Having high-quality, positive social interactions with family and friends regularly can lower a person’s risk of depression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s manual on preventing suicide: “Connectedness and social capital together may protect against suicidal behaviors by decreasing isolation, encouraging adaptive coping behaviors, and by increasing belongingness, personal value, and worth, to help build resilience in the face of adversity.”
Research about the effects of screen time is still new, but some early data suggests that replacing a kid’s early social interactions with more time on devices may hurt their development of emotional understanding and empathy. Screen time can also make it harder to sleep through the night than outdoor playtime.
“We are programmed to respond to other people in real time by looking at each other’s faces, by being able to touch each other and smell each other,” Twenge said. “Digital media interaction is missing a lot of those elements.”
In addition to hanging out with others in person, Twenge said we should all also make time for other activities that boost mental health, like exercise and sleep — out of earshot from the buzzes and pings of phones and other screens.
Although only a trained mental-health professional can diagnose depression or suicide risk, there’s more everyone can do to help each other out. Asking your peers, family, friends, and kids how they’re doing — and really listening to their answers without judgment — is a simple first step.