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  • Mary McNaughton-Cassill Ph.D.

Rates of Depression and Anxiety Are Rising in Young People

How much are our own attitudes and behaviors contributing to the problem?

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  • Rates of depression and anxiety have been rising among young people for decades.

  • Depression is characterized by negative views of yourself, the world around you, and the future.

  • Complaining is easy, finding solutions is harder but more productive.

  • If we want young people to feel better about the world, we better step up our game.

One of the latest topics in our 24-hour news cycle is how depressed young Americans are becoming. Whether you are looking at rates of anxiety, depression, or suicide, teens are disproportionately affected. Theories about the causes of this trend abound and include loneliness caused by Covid, alienation caused by social media, overly involved parents who undermine their children’s resilience, and lifestyle changes.

Both depression and anxiety are strongly related to the way we think about the things that are happening to us. Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist known for his groundbreaking research on mood disorders postulated that depression stems from three cognitive factors he referred to as the cognitive triad. These include negative beliefs about yourself, the world around you, and the future. So, what if we tried to determine what it is about this moment in history that is causing so many of our young people to feel so hopeless.

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Negative beliefs about yourself: Part of moving from youth to adulthood involves developing the academic, social, and employment skills necessary to become independent. This is certainly nothing new, but in our technological world many young people find themselves training until well into their 20s to prepare for their career of choice. During this time, they often remain dependent on their family for economic and social support and are constantly being told that their worth as a person depends on their educational attainments and career success.

Other youth find themselves trying to compete on this economic playing field without the education and family resources necessary to be competitive. In the meantime, they are being exposed to a relentless parade of people on social media who seem to be more attractive, more accomplished, and more successful than they are. If you can never live up to the expectations of your parents, schools, employers, and peers and are constantly comparing yourself to impossible social media standards, it is hard to view yourself positively. While teens have always had to develop their own identity and independence, I would argue that this was easier to do when you were comparing yourself to the real people around you rather than photoshopped influencers.

Negative beliefs about those around you: In their quest to figure out their own goals, teens obsessively observe the people around them. If they see their parents struggling to climb the corporate ladder, or working excessively to stay in place, they may assume that their own efforts won’t pay off either or that the environment we live in is so unfair that it isn’t worth trying to get ahead. While social problems, political conflict, and distrust of leaders is nothing new, our 24-hour news cycle certainly makes every wrinkle in the system glaringly apparent. When you throw in deliberate misinformation and the disintegration of trust in institutions, including religious organizations, universities, scientific research, and corporations, it is not surprising that many young people feel as though there is no one they can trust.

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But what is new is not the corruption but rather our constant exposure to it. By today’s standards, it is amazing to think that the general population didn’t know that FDR used a wheelchair, that John F. Kennedy had affairs while living in the White House, that many institutions simply covered up the poor behaviors of their employees, or that our military actions were not always valorous.

While it is common for pundits to argue that prior generations were braver than youth today, they often ignore the fact that it was much easier to feel proud about your country's actions when news was censored to provide only positive views of what happened. For example, during WWII, the blitz of London was portrayed as evidence of the Nazi’s evil intent and bravery of the British. The extent of the Allied blitz on the city of Dresden was not shown, although the city was virtually leveled and civilian casualties were higher than those in London, when calculated as a percentage of the total population.

Negative beliefs about the future: Today’s teens are living their lives surrounded by stories of economic crises, catastrophic climate change, and atrocities occurring around the world. So perhaps it is not surprising that many are concerned about the viability of their future. Close to 60% of young adults say that they worry about having children because of climate change, many fear they will never pay off their student loans or own a house, and most don’t trust the adults who are now in charge to make any meaningful improvements in the outlook.

But is this true? Are their prospects any worse than those of prior generations? Materially, we live easier lives than virtually any other population in the history of the world. We do face major issues in terms of rectifying social and racial inequities, and the complexity of the global economy makes it hard to understand, never mind predict, how things will turn out. But viewed on a large scale, human rights worldwide are improving, we have put in place social safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, which were not available in this country only a 100 years ago, and even the millennials are outrunning the prediction that they would never be able to build prosperous lives for themselves because they came of age during an economic decline.

Fear, anxiety, proactive coping, and optimism in the sense of meeting, not ignoring, challenges can be learned and taught. We all need to become media-literate, and to consciously question the constant flow of information. We can insist that our media outlets be more responsible (solutions journalism), and we need to think more logically and less emotionally about social media. As with most technology, we developed and deployed it without thinking about the long-term consequences.

But even this isn’t new. We developed medical techniques to keep gravely ill people alive before we started grappling with quality-of-life issues. We produced and used nuclear weapons before clearly addressing the ethical issues involved. But since the impact of technology and social media has been quieter and more insidious than a bomb, the impact has been more difficult to detect and combat. That doesn’t mean we can’t consciously choose to manage its impact on our lives, and to talk, explicitly and frequently, to our kids about its value and its problems.

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If we want our young people to feel better about the world, we better step up our game. It is always easier to criticize and complain than it is to find solutions to problems. It is always easier to romanticize the past or to demonize the future than it is to put in the effort to effect meaningful change in the present, in the real world.

The young people around us may have more years ahead of them than we do, but they don’t always know how to put things into perspective or to strategize about solving problems. Just as you can’t change the political landscape if you don’t vote, you can’t make the world better if you sit on the sidelines and complain. If we want the next generation to be more proactive and resilient, we have to show them how to do that and why it matters to them, the people around them, and the future.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D., - Website -


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