Every generation of adults seems to worry that the next generation of youth is in trouble. The perception of kids today is no different, with theories abounding as to why the mental health of the newest generation is slipping, compared with previous standards. From mobile phones to helicopter parents, it might seem like a foregone conclusion that our current crop of young people is destined to be insecure, inattentive, and unable to cope with challenges and stress. Many news headlines on the latest mass shooting or standardized test results often seem to confirm these widespread concerns.
Pediatricians often hear parents lamenting the “good old days” when such things as corporal punishment were more easily accepted to help keep kids in line. But taking a step back, it may be worth a more objective look to examine the assumption that child behavioral problems are worse than ever. Measuring overall mental health is not an easy task, but looking at several important metrics indicate that things may not be nearly as bad as many people think.
From the latest data from the Monitoring the Future Study, one of the nation’s most reliable sources on teen substance use, the use of both alcohol and tobacco among youth is at the lowest level since the study began in 1975. Use of drugs like heroin and ecstasy also are declining. The only major exception to this trend seems to be cannabis use, which has generally shown stable rates during this climate of marijuana decriminalization and, for some states, legalization.
Teen pregnancy rates
One area where there continues to be sustained progress is in teen pregnancy. According to the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall pregnancy rate among adolescent females has been cut in half from 1991 to 2011, across many different ethnic groups. The rate fell from 61.8/1,000 teenagers aged 15-19 years to 31.3/1,000 teenagers.
Far fewer adolescents are being held against their will in juvenile detention centers. The number of youth who are incarcerated have dropped from a high of 381/100,000 in 1995 to 225/100,000 in 2010, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Bullying has been increasingly recognized as the public health problem that it is. The use of online technology also has created many new settings in which bullying can take place. Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic. From the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Crime Victimization Survey, the number of students who report being bullied at school has dropped from 32% in 2007 to an all-time low of 22% in 2013. Another recent study reached similar conclusions for bullying and many other forms of child victimization between 2003 and 2011 (JAMA Pediatr. 2014 Jun;168:540-6).
According to the CDC, the rate of completed suicide in youth peaked in the early1990s and then dropped and stabilized before starting to creep up again over the past 5 or so years. The trends are somewhat different, based on gender and the specific age group that is examined. The majority of completed youth suicides occur in males, with current rates still well below those historical highs.
This one is particularly tricky. While the rates of many specific psychiatric disorders such as ADHD and bipolar disorder have been rising in youth, as well as the use of psychiatric medications, it is much less clear whether this represents a true rise in these disorders versus other factors such as improved detection and a lower diagnostic threshold. One study by Achenbach et al. that measured quantitative levels of child behavior problems from the same rating scale over a 23-year time span found some increases in overall levels from the 1970s to the early 1990s, but then levels began to fall by the end of the millennium (J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2003 Feb;31:1-11).
Of course, these hopeful trends in many significant areas do not mean that these problems have been overcome. While much work remains to be done on many fronts, it is still worth keeping in mind that the overall condition of youth mental health may not be as dire as we might be led to believe and that there is evidence that our efforts, perhaps, are leading to some progress.
Dr. Rettew is associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. He said he has no relevant financial disclosures. Follow him on Twitter @pedipsych. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.