What about the suicide rate?
Another statistic that addressed the question of whether there may be an epidemic of anxiety and depression in adolescents is the recent increase in the suicide rate. While the rate of completed suicide in 15- to 24-year-olds has been trending upward over the last decade, it is worth noting that this phenomenon appears to be occurring across age groups and is not isolated to adolescents. While adolescents may have a unique underlying set of issues driving the increase, it also may be that factors affecting the entire population (access to firearms, the epidemic of opioid addiction) may be at the core of this worrisome trend.
What about the role of stress?
It is worth noting that there is evidence of an increased rate of psychological distress in adolescents and young adults separate from any increase in the rate of psychiatric illness. Surveys of adolescents in high school and entering college demonstrate higher self-reported rates of severe stress and anxiety. One survey from the American Psychological Association from August 2018 found teenagers reporting higher levels of stress and related sadness and anxiety than the levels among the adults who were surveyed. So more young people are struggling with feelings of anxiety and sadness, without necessarily meeting criteria for a psychiatric illness. This suggests that levels of external stressors may have increased, or that the establishment of healthy coping skills has somehow been compromised in young people, or both.
What can you do as a clinician?
While the broader question of whether actual incidence rates of depression are on the rise will not be settled any time soon, when a patient of yours complains of high levels of stress, anxiety, or feelings of depression, it is very possible that the individual has a psychiatric diagnosis. A quick screening evaluation, using a questionnaire such as the Pediatric Symptom Checklist and/or a brief interview, can indicate if the patient may benefit from a referral.
In addition, all children, including those who have a psychiatric diagnosis, will benefit from a calm, patient, supportive adult who is interested in their distress. It would be very helpful if you are ready to talk about healthy coping skills, and how they are developed over time and only in the setting of actually struggling with some adversity. Help them frame their source of stress as a challenge rather than a threat. Help them identify their meaningful supports, particularly adults who know them well, and offer concrete and practical advice and motivation. And remind them about how self-care is essential to managing the normal stress of adolescence. Have handouts (or virtual ones) ready on good sleep hygiene, the value of exercise, and fact-based nutritional guidance. Offer strategies to manage screen time so that it is a recharging break and not a time sink. Support their identification of other strategies to decompress and manage stress: Are they recharged by time with friends? Exercise? Playing music? Listening to music? Playing video games? They should be building their personalized list, and it should include more active as well as passive strategies. Educate them about the risks of using drugs and alcohol “to relax,” or only having one way of unwinding. Educate your patients and parents about the special value of a mindfulness practice, whether meditation, yoga, or any activity in which they practice a nonjudgmental observation and acceptance of strong emotions.
Accurate prevalence rates can help us consider the statistical probability of a psychiatric diagnosis. By talking with your patients about stressful feelings, you can consider the individual need for a fuller psychiatric evaluation while also helping them reframe their approach to stress to one that is more empowering, adaptive, and healthy.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at.