Why Are Young People So Anxious and Sad?
Updated: Jan 9
By Theresa Anthony, author, My 13th Station
Anyone who follows the news is sadly aware that our young people are increasingly struggling with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues. On a regular basis we read stories of young teens dying by suicide or young adults dying by drug overdoses. We read about the emotional fragility and high rates of anxiety among our college students. While the issues themselves—substance abuse and mood disorders--are not new, there is no disputing the sharp increase we are witnessing in recent years.
Emotional struggles in the teen and young adult years are, indeed, part and parcel of the shifting from childhood into adulthood. Historically, drug and alcohol use among teens and young adults has almost been a rite of passage, if not during the teen years, then surely a prominent feature of the college experience.
The symptoms of anxiety and depression in response to academic pressure, romantic angst, family problems, and self-image issues have plagued young people for generations. These common causes of emotional strife are, indeed, part of the natural growing pains that come with entering adulthood.
That said, how do we explain these statistics?
Suicide is now the second leading cause of preventable death among Americans aged 10-34. In 2017 alone there were 14,717 completed suicides in this age cohort (including my son). In addition, the CDC reports that over 157,000 young people aged 10-24 are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries, many being botched suicide attempts.
Between 2009-2017 the rate of depression among kids aged 14-17 increased 60%; among young adults aged 18-21 increased 46%
Approximately 1 in 5, or 21%, of teens aged 13-18 will experience a severe mental disorder
Anxiety affects 31% of teens aged 13-18, anxiety affects 22.3% of young adults aged 19-29
Depression affects 13.3% of teens aged 12-17, depression affects 13.1% of young adults aged 18-25
Statistics may be b-o-r-i-n-g, but these provide the stark evidence of a growing mental health crisis that our young people are in the middle of.
Spike in Youth Suicide
I live in California, where news reports about suicide clusters are becoming far too common, up and down the state. It is interesting to note that a common feature in the surge in suicides is that they are occurring primarily in affluent communities. Why are young people who seem to have all the advantages that come with wealth becoming so hopeless?
There have been recent suicide clusters in Palo Alto, a wealthy enclave known for its gem, Stanford University, and its proximity to Silicon Valley--two sets of suicides, one in 2009 and another cluster in 2014 that involved 9 teens dying on the train tracks. In fact, 12% of the student body at Palo Alto High School, responding to a survey, reported contemplating suicide in the past 12 months. That is about 210 kids.
A 2017 string of suicides involving four male teens from a high school in Clovis, California, near Fresno, and a 2018 cluster of suicides in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino County, involving four kids age 10, 15, and two 16 year-olds have caught the attention of California legislators. These events, in addition to teen suicides in San Diego and those in Palo Alto, have prompted the Assembly Education Committee to take on the issue, introducing Assembly Bill 2246 to address suicide prevention.
Further south in South Orange County, California several young teens, as young as age 13, have taken their own lives in recent years in neighboring South County communities, including a 13 year-old boy this April. In 2017 two 13 year-olds committed suicide in Ladera Ranch within months of each other. In 2018 a 16 year-old teen from Corona del Mar left behind letters to faculty to detail the reasons why he was giving up on life in—marginalized, feeling inadequate, and struggling with the intense academic pressures and competitive environment that define the current high school experience.
Lest we assume that youth suicide is just a California thing, a recent Wall Street Journal article featured a cluster of 7 teens from one high school in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, all whom had committed suicide within a year. There are similar clusters reported in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Alaska. This is a cultural phenomenon we are witnessing.
What is Going On With Our Young People?
As we grapple with trying to understand why so many young people are struggling with mental health disorders, and wonder what is behind the sharp increase in suicides, there are myriad possibilities that attempt to explain this. Here are just some of the possible causes to help explain the increase in mental health issues among the young:
Social Media. Body shaming, bullying, obsession with celebrities and materialism, being left out of social gatherings—the nonstop attachment to the smart phone is yielding a generation with low self-esteem, deep insecurities, emotional numbness, body dymsmorphia, envy, and shallow, superficial “relationships.” Increased screen time equates to reduced real-life socializing, and this can lead to loneliness, isolation, and depression.
Poor Coping Skills. For two generations helicopter parents have unwittingly thwarted their children from learning life's hard lessons and resolving problems on their own. When modern parenting took on a more intense level of involvement in children’s lives, the idea was that the extra attention would benefit the child, helping the child avoid making mistakes. Instead, the over-parenting has resulted in a lack of basic coping skills and resilience among young adults, who find themselves overwhelmed and emotionally ill-equipped when encountering life’s challenges.
Programming. The Netflix series entitled 13 Reasons Why centers on a teen girl who commits suicide, leaving recordings that point to twelve people in her life who may have instigated the suicide. Many parents point to this show as prompting copycat suicides among teens. There are several other teen noir style shows that present intense, dark, disturbing plot-lines that seep into the young subconscious.
Perfectionism. Young people feel intense pressure to have it all dialed in by the time they are 21. This has led to sky high anxiety levels. Young people must deal with intense academic demands, the full-throttle college application process that begins in 9th grade-or sooner, the push to be a top athlete, scholar, or beauty, the stress to live a perfect “Pinterest” life, the pressure to look amazing in your selfies—it all adds up to incredible pressure to measure up to what are essentially unrealistic expectations.
Loss of Faith. A trend emerged among parents about thirty years ago, when parents began to the neglect the religious upbringing or faith formation of their children, often leaving it up to the child to decide when they reach adulthood what his or her beliefs will be. Not only did parents stop going to church, but children grew up without that grounding in faith values. The decline in kids attending church services or participating in church youth group activities has left many floundering and flailing about with no anchor or deeper meaning in their lives. Religion can help instill basic moral values, a sense of belonging and comfort, and, most of all, hope. Obviously, there is no guarantee that a kid who goes to church will be protected from mental health issues later in life, as I can attest firsthand, but involvement in church could act as an added protective factor for many.
Of course, this short list is totally insufficient, as there are many other factors to consider as potential contributors to the increased emotional distress in our youths. Things like a child’s temperament or personality, family situation, and genetic make-up are factors over which the teen has no real control.
This topic is so gargantuan that it’s impossible to cover it effectively in a blog. But if we, as a culture, can just stop and think about the possible issues that are bringing down a generation of young people, maybe we can help influence young parents to rethink modern social trends that may later be harmful to their children’s mental health. Something definitely needs to change—our young people are suffering.
Theresa Anthony is the author of My 13th Station, a Catholic memoir based on her son's battle with depression, alcoholism, and demons, culminating in his suicide at age 25.
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