Studies are showing that our adolescents are the loneliest generation in our history. Anxiety and depression among our youth have become a severe problem. In fact, the increase in mental illness among adolescents has become epidemic and is nothing short of staggering. For example, in a survey of over 600,000 U.S. adolescents, it was found that, from 2009 to 2017, major depression surged 69% among 16 to 17 year olds, and jumped 71% among 18 to 25 year olds.
Tragically, this has led to a significant increase in suicide for these young people. In the U.S., the suicide rate for 18 to 19 year olds climbed 56% from 2008 to 2017. The suicide rate for Canadian youth, according to an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, (June 2012) entitled Suicide among Children and Adolescents in Canada: 1980 – 2008, indicated that suicide rates in Canada are increasing in female children and adolescents. That is, the number of girls committing suicide in Canada has increased by 54% over a 30 year period. Statistics Canada disclosed in 2017 that in the previous decade the suicide rate among girls increased by 38%, while male suicide decreased by 34%. While males are twice as likely to commit suicide, women account for 42% of all suicide deaths under 20 in 2013, whereas in 2003 they accounted for just over a quarter of suicides.
The rate of suicide attempts among women is three times more than men and there are 20 suicide attempts for every successful suicide (Statistics Canada 2012).
Other behaviours related to depression have also increased. These include self-harm, such as cutting, as well as hospital admissions for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
What has caused this problem among adolescents? When questioned, teenagers admit that anxiety and depression are the major problems, and that bullying, drug addiction, alcohol, poverty, pregnancy and gangs are a concern, but less so.
It is always difficult to determine the actual causes behind trends, but some possibilities seem less likely than others. The troubled economy and job loss, the two typical culprits of mental distress, don’t appear to be the cause.
Although the increase in mental health issues occurred around the same time as the opioid epidemic, this crisis seems, almost exclusively, to affect adults over 25 years of age and not adolescents.
There is one societal shift over the past decade, however, that is influencing the lives of today’s teens and young adults more than any other generation: the spread of smartphones and digital media, like social media, texting and video gaming.
There can be no doubt that internet porn has also had a detrimental effect on young people. Sadly, today’s adolescents are often found in front of a screen, sitting alone in their room, observing the sexual activity of others, but not being involved themselves in human interaction. Neurological circuits are created that are ruled by the norms of pornography. Consequently, a result of this digital age is that our young people have become collateral damage.
It is true that older individuals also use these technologies, but younger people have adopted them more quickly and completely, and the impact on their social lives has been more pronounced. In fact, the technological age has drastically restructured their daily lives.
Specifically, compared with their predecessors, teens today spend less face-to-face time with their friends and more time communicating electronically. Study after study has found that this is associated with their mental health issues. This is because when people are physically in the presence of another person, they experience a marked increase in healthy feelings. It is an obvious problem, therefore, that younger generations now prefer to connect through a screen, which also causes them to lose face-to-face social skills.
This is not to suggest that adolescents are solely responsible for their distress. Where are their parents in this? Are they too busy, too tired, or are they too closely attending to their own devices to monitor their children’s habits in this regard?
Adolescence has always been a difficult time. Trying to settle their future, find romantic connections and comparing themselves to peers, who seem to be doing better, according to their Facebook and Twitter platforms, causes major anxieties. Therefore, close parental attention and support are necessary – and are often absent.
Helpful Consideration for Adolescents
Policy makers should pay heed to a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (September 2018). Its findings may be politically incorrect in that the research provides evidence of the positive role played by traditional religion on the development of youth health and welfare.
This Harvard study joins a multitude of other studies with similar findings, which have overwhelmingly found that people of faith tend to be less depressed, less anxious, and far more able to handle their lives than non-believers. For example, an earlier study was published in the journal, Canadian Psychiatry (May 2013), in regard to adolescents in the province of Nova Scotia. This study showed that religion and the frequency of religious service attendance lessened depression risks among adolescents. The study concluded that religious attendance independently predicts lower depression among girls. Among boys with depression, religious attendance predicted a lower likelihood of being depressed in follow up interviews. In the journal, Annals of Behavioural Medicine (Dec 2016), a study was published indicating that women who had frequent religious service attendance had the lowest risk of developing depression. It is noted, however, that this study, which included a total of 48,984 U.S. nurses, whose mean age was 58 years, did not deal with adolescents, but the study at least indicates the strong influence of religion on female depression.
According to a study, published in the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology in 2014, other protective factors against adolescent suicide include academic achievement, enjoying school, parental and non-parental connectedness (trusted adults), supportive friendships, involvement in sports and school engagement and safety. It is important to note that liking school was more a protective factor for females, while feeling safe in school was more a protective factor for males.
Youth suicide in Canada is the second leading cause of death in Canada for ages 15 to 24. (Statistics Canada, 2015a). Additionally, there are more suicide attempts by youth than by adults. It’s a troubling time for society.