What Your Patients are Hearing

Depression increasing among American teens, young adults

Time spent on social media is seen as partly to blame


Depression, suicidal thoughts, and mental distress appear to be on the rise among American teenagers and young adults, and a new study points to their use of social media as a cause. According to the study’s lead author, Jean M. Twenge, PhD, the findings might be evident of a generational shift in mental illness. The study looked at data from more than 200,000 adolescents aged 12-17 and nearly 400,000 young adults aged 18 and over from 2005 to 2017. During that time, reported symptoms consistent with major depression increased by 52% among the teens and 63% among the young adults. Girls were especially at risk, with one in five teenage girls having experienced major depression in 2017. In addition, by 2017, nearly three-quarters of young adults had experienced feelings of hopelessness about their lives. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide rose during that study period. Dr. Twenge said a major factor contributing to those trends is the plugged-in lifestyle of many teens and young adults. “Spending time on social media tends not to be in real time,” said Dr. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. “You’re not having a real-time conversation with someone – usually you’re not seeing their face, and you can’t give them a hug; it’s just not as emotionally fulfilling as seeing someone in person,” she said in an interview with National Public Radio. The uncertain times are likely another influence, according to Robert Crosnoe, PhD, a sociologist and adolescent health researcher from the University of Texas at Austin. “I think we are living in a time of great uncertainty, where people are unsure about the future of the country but also their own futures,” he said. “And that is anxiety provoking for anybody, but it’s especially true for young people whose whole future is ahead of them.” NPR.

depressed teen Peerayot/Thinkstock.com

Alexandra Valoras was a high school student who earned straight As and participated in extracurricular school activities like robotics and pastimes like snowboarding. On the outside, her future looked bright. But inside, Alexandra lived in a world of despair. Her journals revealed profound self-loathing and sadness. She repeatedly expressed a desire to end her own life, reported Jim Axelrod of CBS News. Alexandra is far from alone. The suicide rate for American teens her age is at a 40-year high. One reason is the pressure for perfection, with failure being viewed as catastrophic. “I don’t want this notebook to end, I love it more than myself (?) I need a place where there is no need for me to be perfect,” Alexandra wrote in one entry. “We have a culture that makes kids think that if they’re not perfect, they’re less than good,” said Scott White, a counselor at Alexandra’s high school. Not every person can reach them.” On March 18, 2018, Alexandra wrote her last entry. “What I will miss by dying tonight. The possibility of anything getting better.” She then tidied up her room, walked to an overpass, and jumped. She was 17 years old. Her parents, Dean and Alysia Valoras, shared their daughter’s journals with the hope of helping others. “The hurt, the sadness is evolving,” Mr. Valoras said in the report. “And now there is this thing called living, so that I am a good father, a good husband, a good person.” CBS Sunday Morning.

For college students, accessing mental health services can be a challenge – especially when cost is an issue. In an effort to address that problem Loyola University in New Orleans recently opened a clinic for low-income students in need of psychiatric services. The clinic, opened in February, hopes to serve about 50 patients each week and is open to students and community members. “I’m really stoked about working with this demographic. It’s a population that doesn’t make a lot of money. So you can go to this clinic, pay a small co-pay, and not have to rely on having health insurance,” said Sarah Zoghbi of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic & Assistance Foundation, one of the organizations providing support to the clinic. The clinic aims to address the gap in mental health services for the underinsured and uninsured in the area. And it’s sorely needed. Louisiana ranks 38th among the states for lower rates of access to care and higher prevalence of mental illness, according to the 2019 Mental Health America report. About 599,000 adults in Louisiana, about 17% of the population, have a mental illness. “It is our sincere hope to fill a gap in the community by providing high-quality services for those in need,” said the clinic’s director John Dewell, PhD. “No one will be turned away for lack of funds.” The Times-Picayune.

More and more video games are “tackling mental health issues,” Laura Parker wrote in the New York Times. “Mental health is becoming a more central narrative in our culture with efforts to normalize mental health challenges,” according to Eve Crevoshay, of Take This, a group that seeks to destigmatize mental illness within the video game industry. “With that trend comes response from creative industries, including games.” One of the games that Ms. Parker mentioned, called Sea of Solitude, is expected to publish this year. Another, called Celeste, examines depression and anxiety through a protagonist who tries to avoid obstacles. And yet another, called Hellblade, focuses on a warrior who deals with psychosis. Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD, a psychotherapist who works as clinical director for Take This, said video games can be more effective at helping people bounce back “from negative moods than passive forms of media like TV or movies.” Take This provides resources, guidelines, and training about mental health on its website. The New York Times.

General offers of help to families in crisis are fine but might not get acted upon. It is better to offer something specific, and “the more specific, the better,” wrote Andrea Paterson in the Washington Post. “Not ‘Can I bring dinner sometime?’ Instead, something like, ‘I’d like to come over on Thursday and bring turkey chili.’ Ms. Paterson wrote that she came to that conclusion after her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer in 2013. His death 4½ years later plunged Ms. Paterson and her sons “into crisis,” she wrote. Her tight network of friends and neighbors helped her cope, she said, and their concrete offers of help kept the family going. Such offers need not be earth shattering or monumental, she said. One of her “all-time favorites” was delightfully simple: “ ‘I’m having a cup of tea, watching Audrey learn to roller skate in the driveway. Come join me.’ Needless to say, I joined her.” Ms. Paterson shared several other specifics that might help families in crisis, such as getting a friend to set up a support network of helpers who can pick up prescriptions, meet repairmen, and so on. “Remember that what you offer doesn’t need to be expensive or extravagant,” Ms. Paterson wrote. “ ‘Tomorrow night we are watching the Super Bowl: Join us for tacos and ice cream.’ After all, no one can be in a crisis 24/7.” The Washington Post.

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