American Teenagers: Depression is our biggest problem

This Pew study. Wow.

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According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 96% of teens view depression and anxiety as a major or minor problem among their peers, far outpacing literally every other societal problem, including bullying, alcohol, poverty, teen pregnancy and more. And the numbers aren’t even close.

Per the story, it’s even worse than just the graph above:

  • Teens feel this way regardless of whether or not they personally suffer from depression – this means that they are hugely aware of the problem in others, which obviously shows it has a high degree of preeminence.
  • The trend is specific to all teenagers, regardless of “gender, racial and socio-economic lines, with roughly equal shares of teens across demographic groups saying it is a significant issue in their community.”

This makes perfect sense, sadly. As we know from empirical data, rates of mental illness are increasing across the board, but the trend is most visible among American teenagers.

If teenagers across the board are seeing increases in mental illness, what doe that tell us?

I’d argue a broader point, using the graph above: The rise in the first line is a direct result of the rise in every other line.

Again, we know that mental illness is increasing. We also know that mental health isn’t like some contagious virus – you don’t “catch” depression the way you catch a common cold. So, what is it? What is leading to the massive spikes we are seeing in mental illness? My argument is this: It’s not just one thing, but many things. As the graph above and corresponding story makes clear, American teenagers are facing major societal challenges. They are scared, worried and anxious, as a result of a variety of factors, including a more complex society, increasing reliance on technology (at the expense of regular relationships) and the pressures of a rapidly changing and interconnected world.

A problem like this cannot simply be addressed at an individual level. It goes without saying that access to mental health care is incredibly important, and fighting mental health stigma (my favorite issue!) is vital, but we aren’t going to really get at a reduction in mental illness unless we address the societal and cultural problems which have resulted in its increase.

What does that look like? I don’t know all of the answers. But, if you’ve read this blog before, none of what I’m going to say is particularly new. Teenagers – well, hell, and the rest of us – are too addicted to technology. They are spending more times with their phones and less time with each other. This has devastating psychological impacts. The answer is not that simple, of course. But we know that teenagers are spending less time with each other in a variety of ways – less time at parties and social gathers, less time away from adults and less time simply interacting with one another. At the same time, world events and pressures are more available and accessible than they ever have been – thanks, in part, to our lovely phones.

What’s the end result? A generation that is more depressed, more brittle and less resilient.

This isn’t an effort to place blame, but it’s something all of us are responsible for addressing. Teenagers become adults…and, as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety for my entire life, I don’t want an entire generation of teenagers and young adults to feel that pain. We have to deal with this. Now.

Teens, marijuana and depression

A friend of mine was kind enough to flag this article for me, and it brings up some points that I really think are worth exploring.

As a debate over legalizing marijuana continues across the country – and in Pennsylvania – a new study draws a connection (not a casualtional one, however) between teen marijuana use and depression.

From the NBC report on the study:

Researchers found that cannabis use during the teenage years was associated with a nearly 40 percent bump in the risk of depression and a 50 percent increase in the risk of suicidal thoughts in adulthood, according to the study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

The report does note that this isn’t to say marijuana causes depression (though that may, in fact, be the case). It’s possible that the depression encourages marijuana use, or that a third factor (such as economics, anxiety, stress, etc) cause both the depression and marijuana use.

Still. The study does show a clear connection between marijuana and depression. There’s an irony to that: Some research shows that medical marijuana may actually help alleviate symptoms of depression. This may be a secondary benefit of medical marijuana, which has been shown to relieve pain and stress – two factors which, of course, may lead to someone becoming depressed.

Can these seemingly contradictory findings be reconciled? Sure. It’s possible that the drugs act in such a way which helps those who are already depressed, but affects other aspects of someone’s brain chemistry in those who are not depressed, thus making them so. It’s also important to note that there are major differences in terms of the chemical composition, and effects, of medical and recreational marijuana, thus potentially resulting in different effects.

The causes and effects of marijuana use are not always clear or linear. More research is needed.

Personally, I believe that marijuana needs to be examined and researched like any other drug. I’ll also note a flaming hypocrisy within our current medical and judicial systems: Numerous legal drugs (such as Oxycontin) are obtainable from reputable medical professionals, despite the fact that Oxycontin is more potent and addictive than marijuana.

Our drug policy in America makes no sense. But – and this is a big “but” – we cannot sit here and pretend that legalizing marijuana is the solution to many of our woes. Legalizing marijuana may be preferable to the alternative of prohibition, but that’s not to say that there won’t be significant negative side effects, and this may very well be depression in young people. Marijuana legalization – it’s pros and cons – need real, comprehensive study and thought. It could have major benefits and harm to the mental illness space.