This past week, three-time cycling world champion and 2016 Olympic Silver winner Kelly Catlin passed away at the age of 23. According to a statement from her father, the young cyclist had taken her own life. As a result, there have been emerging theories that believe she had been battling with depression.
As deeply saddening as it is to hear about Catlin’s passing, a recent study has revealed that the rates of depression and suicide amongst teenagers and young adults is rapidly rising. In fact, in 2017, the CDC cited suicide as one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States (1).
The study on depression rates
The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, was based on data collected from 600 000 people by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey is a yearly, nationwide mental-health survey conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
For the study, the researchers chose to focus on the responses of more than 200 000 teenagers. The responses were from teenagers aged 12 to 17 years old from 2005 to 2017. The researchers also analyzed the responses of 400 000 young adults aged 18 to 25 from 2008 to 2017.
According to the findings, the mental health of teens and young adults in the United States has alarmingly declined.
Specifically, the study revealed that, between 2005 and 2017, the rates of teenagers reporting symptoms associated with major depression in the last 12 months increased by 52% with the percentage jumping from 8.7% to 13.2%.
In terms of young adults aged 18 to 25 between 2009 and 2017, the percentage rose by 63% (8.1% to 13.2%). Also, the rate of young adults experiencing psychological distress such as suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased by 47% from 2008 to 2017.
The researchers also noted that there was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing any sort of psychological distress. In fact, they noted a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals over 65.
“There is an overwhelming amount of data from many different sources, and it all points in the same direction: more mental health issues among American young people,” says lead study author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Jean Tweng.
As a result of the findings, Tweng believes that social media may be a contributing factor in the declining rates of mental health among young adults in the United States,
“But there was one change that impacted the lives of more young people than older people, and that was the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting, and gaming,” added Tweng. Moreover, parents have admitted that they harbor a growing concern about the amount of time their children spend on social media sites (2).
Is social media the root cause of mental health decline?
“There’s this overload of information and stimulation and a much bigger sphere of influence that they’re being exposed to,” Tweng added, “Given what we know about adolescent development and vulnerability and the intensive need for intimate and healthy social connection during these years, you can see how social media may not be developmentally appropriate.”
Social media may not be the only problem
However, other experts caution against looking at social media as the root cause of mental health problems amongst the youth,
“When it comes to social media and depression, the findings are all over the place,” says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert in adolescence, “ I think every generation of adults tries to pin a negative trend they see in young people on whatever the current technological fad is. Certainly, there are some stressors that are inherent in social media use, but there are other stressors as well.”
Regardless, Twenge believes that the results are enough reason to start prioritizing the mental health of teenagers and young adults,
“There is a mental health crisis among American teens and young adults. These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups,” she said.
Shari Jager-Hyman, a research associate with the Center for the Prevention of Suicide at the University of Pennsylvania, echoed these sentiments,
“It is certainly possible that increased exposure to social/digital media and decreased time engaging in face-to-face interactions may contribute to greater increases in psychological distress in younger people.”
You can read more about the study here.
For our American readers, if you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text 741741, or chat online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.