Health & Spirit

Mental health problems are on the rise among American teens and young adults

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

You can call the generation of young Americans now working their way to adulthood Generation Z, because they follow Generations X and Y. You can call these 14-to-27-year-olds "iGen," after the wireless devices that seem permanently affixed to their persons. And if they're your kids and still living with you, you can even call (or text) them late for dinner.

What you can't call them, according to new research, is happy.

A study published Thursday finds that U.S. teens and young adults in 2017 were more distressed, more likely to suffer from major depression, and more prone to suicide than their counterparts in the millennial generation were at the same age.

Researchers also found that between 2008 and 2017, Gen Z's emotional distress and its propensity toward self-harm grew more than for any other generation of Americans during the same period. By 2017, just over 13 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 25 had symptoms consistent with an episode of major depression in the previous year – a 62 percent increase in eight years.

Between 2008 and 2017, suicides among young adults in age brackets between 18 and 25 grew by as much as 56 percent, and the rate at which these young people entertained thoughts of suicide rose by up to 68 percent. Suicide attempts rose 87 percent among 20- and 21-year-olds in that same period, and 108 percent among 22- and 23-year-olds.

"This is a large change in a short period of time -- an unusually large change in a short period of time," said San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, the senior author of the new research.


The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is based on close to 8 million responses to a national survey on health and substance use. It reveals that the emotional well-being of younger Americans is poor compared with that of their elders.

It's also poor compared with how earlier generations felt when they were on the cusp of adulthood. In comparing rates of distress, depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior among various age groupings, the new research took account of shifts in happiness that have long been chronicled over Americans' lifespans. In 2017, young adults born in 1999 were roughly 50 percent more likely than those born in 1985 to report feelings amounting to "serious psychological distress" in the previous month.

While the jury is still out on the cause of this emotional distress, Twenge and her colleagues surmise that two related factors -- these digital natives' ubiquitous communication devices and their chronic shortage of sleep -- are key factors behind their poor mental health.

"I didn't come to that conclusion immediately or lightly. I came to that conclusion because nothing else fits," said Twenge, the author of a book titled "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."


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