Today’s youth: anxious, depressed, anti-social
The mental health of teenagers has sharply declined in the last 25 years and the chances that 15-year-olds will have behavioural problems such as lying, stealing and being disobedient, have more than doubled.
The rate of emotional problems such as anxiety and depression has increased by 70% among adolescents, according to the biggest time trend study conducted in Britain.
Boys are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems and girls are more likely to suffer emotional problems. The rate is higher for emotional problems, now running at one in five of 15-year-old girls. The study found no increase in aggressive behaviour, such as fighting and bullying, and no increase in rates of hyperactivity.
The study looked at three generations of 15-year-olds, in 1974, 1986 and 1999. Behavioural problems increased over the whole period, while emotional problems were stable until 1986 and have subsequently shot up. The increases cannot be explained by the rise in divorce and single parenthood, argues the team of researchers, because they found comparable increases in all types of families, although there is a higher rate of adolescent mental health problems in single-parent families.
Nor can growing inequality over the 25 years explain the rise in problem teenagers because rates of increase were comparable in all social classes. There was no difference between white and ethnic minority teenagers.
The research found that the rising rate of 15-year-olds with behavioural problems correlated to their increased chances of experiencing a range of poor outcomes as adults, such as homelessness, being sacked, dependency on benefits and poor mental and physical health. This indicated that the rise in problems cannot be attributed to a greater likelihood to report them.
The deterioration of adolescents’ mental health in Britain is in contrast to the findings of research in the US which
showed that a comparable decline tailed off in the 90s, while in Holland, there was no decline at all.
The study, Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health, to be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in November, is the first to provide evidence in support of the increasing concern from parents and teachers about the welfare of teenagers.
The research conducted by a team from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and the University of Manchester, provides specific evidence for Britain which is in line with the World Health Organisation’s warning last year that the fastest-growing mental health problem in the world, and particularly in the developed world, was among adolescents. “We are doing something peculiarly unhelpful for adolescent mental health in Britain,” said Sharon Witherspoon, deputy director of the Nuffield Foundation which funded the research. “This is not a trend which is being driven by a small number of kids who are getting worse. It is not a small tail pulling down the average but a more widespread malaise.”
“The route people take to adulthood has become much more difficult with the pressure on for qualifications,” said John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence. “When young people are faced with all these choices, they say they have to ‘make it up as they go along’.”
The study was not focused on the most serious cases such as suicide and self-harm where other recent studies have shown significant increases, but the more general experience of adolescents which is less likely to reach the point of needing professional intervention.