Helping our youth live healthier
A recent 2019 study, reported in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, reviewed a national survey of over 600,000 Americans. Their findings were concerning. The rate of major depression increased by 52% from 2005 to 2017 in teenagers and 63% from 2009 to 2013 for young adults. Serious psychological distress among young adults increased 71% from 2008 to 2017.
They also found that these increases were particularly high for those born in the early 1980’s (Millennials) and in the late 1990’s. They found a generational association with increases in depression, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
These findings are concerning because individuals who experience a major depressive episode early in their lives are far more likely to experience depressive episodes later in life.
The findings are worth paying attention to.
But what does it mean? How do we understand the underlying causes of these dramatic increases? What is causing misery among some adolescents and young adults? What are the factors driving this suffering?
Likely, there are many factors. The authors of this study, psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues, wonder if increased screen and digital use may be a factor, since that has been associated with higher rates of depression. They consider that the increased incidence of insomnia may contribute to a greater likelihood of developing depression.
I gravitate toward Johann Hari’s theories, described in his book “Lost Connections,” for a deeper understanding of what may contribute to these statistics. He suggests that increases in depression and distress come from a modern life that is disconnected—from meaningful work, from other people, from a sense of belonging, from our values, from nature, and from a secure future.
So what might we do to help our youth find greater happiness and wellbeing?
Seek greater balance at home and at work. Don’t buy into the crazy busy lives we’ve forged. This requires discipline, strong intention, and follow through. Make time to smell the roses, walk on the beach, and listen to the rain on the roof. Make sure that your children have time to learn how to amuse themselves, without depending on a structured activity or a video game. Leave enough time for adequate sleep for both you and your family.
Spend quality time with your loved ones. Most of us want and need undivided attention from the people we love. That means being 100% present, in the moment, listening and connecting with your family and friends. A good time for this is at family meals, which are associated with better outcomes for teenagers.
Forge a sense of community and belonging. Create opportunities for your family to volunteer in your community—helping less fortunate neighbors. Our family made a tradition of delivering Thanksgiving dinners to the elderly when our kids were little. There is much to do to make a better world. Engage your children at a young age in important, affirming, and community-building volunteer activities.
Ultimately, we don’t know for sure what will help our children grow into healthy adults. There is much we have no control over. But we do have control over what we do, the choices we make, and the priorities that we set.