Teenage Depression Has Soared In The Past 25 Years.
On most counts, young people's lives are improving. Drinking, smoking and drug-taking are down in the UK; teen pregnancies are at their lowest level for nearly half a century. Yet there is growing evidence that teens are in the grip of a mental-health crisis. It is as if, rather than acting out, young people are turning in on themselves.
Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. The number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 and, in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have also almost doubled. In a 2016 survey for Parent Zone, 93 per cent of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers and 90 per cent thought the issues were getting more severe, with 62 per cent dealing with a pupil's mental-health problem at least once a month and an additional 20 per cent doing so on a weekly or even daily basis.
For parents and teachers, this is a difficult thing to confront: an epidemic of young people at odds with the world around them is hardly a positive reflection of the society we've created for them. When young people's mental health is discussed, there tends to be a lot of hand-wringing about the lack of early help and the long waiting times for clinical support – which is fair enough, because until the Government announced new funding recently, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) received less than 0.6 per cent of the total NHS budget.
With celebrities (Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Alastair Campbell) increasingly talking openly about their own mental illnesses, there is much greater awareness than there used to be and correspondingly less stigma, making it easier for teenagers to acknowledge their problems. This undoubtedly skews the figures (insofar as there are figures: we were very bad at measuring young people's mental health in the past). But even if you accept that there's more reporting that there was a decade or two ago, pretty much everyone agrees that something very disturbing is happening.
Research by the mental-health charity Young Minds has found that exams are a significant trigger for mental illness in young people. Under pressure to get the best possible results, schools are inclined to give teenagers the impression that they have only one shot at tests that will determine the rest of their lives (even though this is not true).
We are educating young people for a world that is unlikely to exist in 20 years' time and, arguably, not equipping them with the skills they need for the one that will. And then there's the internet, which has grown up at the same time as the explosion in teen mental illness and is often seen as part of the problem, with cyber-bullying and worries about body image (created partly by selfie culture) often cited as triggers.
Social media doesn't create bullying or anxieties about body image (it's worth noting that rates of bullying haven't risen in the last 10 years). But technology can amplify problems or give them new forms of expression. Cyber-bullying can be particularly painful. But the trouble with seeing social media as the problem is that it's the technology that then gets addressed rather than the underlying issues. And after the digital detox, the problems remain.
Words by Geraldine Bedell