Why Are Our Youth and Young Adults in a Mental Health Crisis?

In a recent article posted at the Institute for Family Studies, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor form San Diego State University, outlines an extremely troubling crisis: the mental health of our youth and young adults.

Despite skepticism from many researchers, Twenge demonstrates convincingly (citing scores of studies) the skyrocketing rates of several mental health concerns.  She references a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey of 600,000 Americans:

From 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20-to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent.  Depression surged 69 percent among 15-17-year-olds.  Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017.  Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts.  The increases were more pronounced among girls and young women.  By 2017, one out of five 12- to 17-year-old girls had experienced major depression in the previous year.

There’s more.  But this is more than bad enough.  These are not slight increases.  They are instead disturbingly rapid rises in statistics we would all very much like to see moving in the opposite direction. 

What is the reason for these increases?  Twenge ably considers the possibilities here as well, and rightly recognizes that the most obvious answers are not to blame.  For instance, economic conditions and joblessness could negatively contribute to mental health…but the US economy is in a period of tremendous growth over these years and joblessness is at record lows.

The pressures of the academy?  Nope, Twenge says “teens spend less time on homework on average than teens did in the 1990s.” 

Perhaps it is the ubiquitous scourge of the opioid crisis?  Negatory.  “…that crisis seemed to almost exclusively affect adults older than 25.” 

So, what then is the cause?  Twenge continues a profoundly astute analysis by identifying the likeliest culprit, “But there was one societal shift over the past decade that influenced 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 gaming.” 

Kids are kids.  Kids have always been kids and deal with kid challenges – peer pressure, bullying, trying to figure out how to navigate romantic concerns.  But as much as things stay the same, the life of our teens and young adults is radically different from that of previous generations when it comes to technology, the smartphone above all.  Those of all generations are now virtually cyborgs, attached to our devices at all hours.  But for those who are currently young adults, they have always known this to be normal.  And it’s not good for their mental health. 

This shows up in an American Psychological Association study showing that millennials are the most stressed generation of all, almost a third more so than boomers.  Another recent study considered stress among millennials, asking them to categorize their level of stress and list their greatest stressors.  Millenials “feel their overall stress level is caused by the accumulation of daily micro-stressors – seemingly trivial experiences – such as being stuck in traffic, waiting for appointments, or various smartphone issues.” 

The list really is pretty shocking in the general triviality of the concerns.  Here is the list of these troubling micro-stressors:

  1. Losing wallet/credit card
  2. Arguing with partner
  3. Commute/traffic delays
  4. Losing phone
  5. Arriving late to work
  6. Slow Wifi
  7. Phone battery dying
  8. Forgetting passwords
  9. Credit card fraud
  10. Forgetting phone charger
  11. Losing/misplacing keys
  12. Paying bills
  13. Job interviews
  14. Phone screen breaking
  15. Credit card bills
  16. Check engine light coming on
  17. School loan payments
  18. Job security
  19. Choosing what to wear
  20. Washing dishes

Some observations about this list:

  1. Historical awareness? It is almost funny.  I’ll confess I did laugh.  Quite a bit.  Not because these things aren’t potentially quite stressful – it’s that they pale in significance to the kinds of stresses faced by previous generations.  Imagine the list of life stressors that would have characterized the greatest generation in their youth: The Great Depression, The Germans, The Japanese, etc.  Now those are stressors worth stressing about.
  2. Technology, technology, technology.  It is remarkably weighted toward technological concerns that could not have similarly afflicted previous generations.  Nearly half of these concerns relate to navigating the world of technology.  The devices that are intended to make our lives easier our stressing out and sometimes killing our children. 
  3. Triviality has replaced significant meaning.  One final observation and one that ties together the first two.  One of the things this list of stressors and the rise in mental health challenges reflects is a generation adrift.  A generation without significant meaning and purpose.  The greatest generation could bear up under the stresses of hunger, war, depression, etc. because they knew who they were, what life was for.  There was a sense of shared identity and purpose for life. Our young people today have a fragmented, distracted life full of micro-stressors, but devoid of significance, meaning, and purpose.  Part of what is missing is a significant, over-arching, purpose for life.  Such a purpose is inextricably linked to belief in a God who created us with significance and purpose, who orders our lives, directing them for a good end. 

What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1

We would help this generation enormously by helping them discover their purpose in life.  It’s not to be found in technology.    Discovering that anew might do a great deal for the mental health of millions.