Do our youth really have more mental health issues?

Suicide postThat’s what a recent study is claiming. This study found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age who were studied in the Great Depression era.

According to Children’s psychiatrist, Stuart Goldman, MD, the interpretation of these findings all depend on how you slice it.

It’s a little hard to know if there really are more youth dealing with mental health issues today as opposed to youth from the Great Depression era. I think there’s a greater awareness level of families identifying children with these difficulties. There is an increasing permissiveness for people to express distress in ways they couldn’t in the past.

Goldman does think that kids are feeling a significant amount of stress today, but doesn’t necessarily know that it’s greater today than – in say – the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. He does agree with the study’s author who speculates that our current culture obsessed with material items, wealth, looks and status contributes to mental health issues.

There is a greater level of materialism today than there was 70 years ago. If you were a poor kid during the Great Depression, you didn’t know how the rich and famous lived. There’s much more awareness of what the lives of wealthy people are like thanks to television and the internet.

An example of this sort of media exposure is MTV’s show “My Super Sweet 16” – it showcases the teen girl with headphones on with laptoplavish and over-the-top birthday parties for America’s richest teens. One teen’s family flew her to Italy to have three custom-made pairs of shoes designed for the big event. With shows like these, how can the average teen compare?

Goldman says technology plays a huge role in teens’ media exposure, potentially eroding other personal resources. The hours your teen spends watching television and on Facebook are hours they could be doing something productive and enriching. He doesn’t recommend more than two hours of screen time a day.

Goldman also cites the greater fragmentation of family to teen stress.

With two working parents, there is less infrastructure around children and they need to be able to reach out to adults for support. People forget to have family time. Having a few family dinners a week reduces negative outcomes for adolescents like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

No matter how you slice it – whether there really are more teens dealing with mental health issues or if they are just more willing to talk about them than in the past – teens need the resources to be able to identify and deal with what’s plaguing them today.

In other pediatric mental health news, the number of children 2- to 5- years old who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed powerful anti-psychotic drugs has double over the past decade.

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