Depression, anxiety higher among today’s teens, landmark study finds

Today’s high school and college students are five times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and high stress than youth of the same age in the 1930s, according to a new report that analyzed more than 70 years of data from mental health surveys.

The report, released this week and conducted by researchers at five universities, adds two ideas to the vaults of modern parenting knowledge.

First, kids are less emotionally prepared for the challenges of adulthood, likely as the result of what one expert called a “changing culture of success.” A treadmill of increasingly high expectations and more demanding schedules can make young adults feel isolated, anxious and unable to cope.

Second, and perhaps more importantly moving foward, that treadmill starts in early childhood, experts say. Choices parents make in the early years of their children’s lives can echo years down the road.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

It can be hard to see through the technological and logistical clutter of modern parenting, and this study suggests that parents as a whole can do a better job preparing their children for adulthood. Here are a few expert tips to raising healthy, well-adjusted kids in the age of family dinners scheduled on Palm Pilots.

1. Everything in moderation. “Everybody needs time to just relax and rejuvenate, and kids especially need time to dream and wonder and just be left to themselves,” Wise says. Encourage your children to pick up a hobby, but keep scheduled activities to two or three per week. When you’re shuttling your kid from school to piano to dance, nobody wins.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your kids fail. “The ultimate goal is to raise kids who don’t need you,” Wise says. “Sometimes that means letting them learn lessons on their own.” As much as you want to save your children tears, somtimes failure brings its own valuable insights.

3. Know when to be hands-off. You can be involved in your child’s life without becoming the cruise director. “When parents micro-manage, they’re sending the message to their child that he or she can’t make those kind of decisions,” Hunter says. Hyper-parenting can make kids more dependent on their parents down the road and less able to make important decisions about jobs, finances or their education.

All of that boils down to one slightly unsettling truth:

“The job of parents is getting harder,” says Dr. Scott Hunter, who heads the pediatric neuropsychology program at the University of Chicago medical center.

“Society has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, and we’re just now starting to understand how those cultural changes affect our kids,” Hunter says.

Researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of almost 80,000 high school and college students who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a common mental health questionnaire, between 1938 and 2007.

Overall, five times as many students in 2007did not meetthe “healthy” threshold in at least one category, compared with those who filled out the form in 1938.

Results were even more skewed in two areas: depression, which increased from 1 percent of respondents in 1938 to 6 percent in 2007, and “hypomania,” a measure of anxiety, which increased from 5 percent of students in 1938 to nearly a third in 2007.

The next question, which was not quantitatively addressed by the study, is why.

The report cites a change from “intrinsic” markers of self-esteem — things like inner beauty and trying one’s best — to external ones, like the social pressures of middle and high school and an increasingly competitive academic landscape.

Hunter says that kids today are more likely to feel that they’ve disappointed their parents, whether it’s by not making varsity, by bringing home a B instead of an A, or failing to get into a top college.

“Kids want to please their parents, and failing to do so increases feelings of helplessness and lack of self-esteem,” he says. “By heaping all of these expectations — some of which, for many kids, are simply unrealistic — we’re setting them up for these types of mental health issues.”

Nicole Wise, co-author of Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?, says the goal of parenting — “to raise happy, healthy kids who eventually don’t need you anymore” — hasn’t changed.But modern trends that can cloud that goal have exploded, from selective preschools all the way through SAT prep courses that cost thousands of dollars.

“Our job as parents is to help our kids find what makes them feel smart and competent and excited,” Wise says. “For for some kids that’s academics, for some it’s competive sports, for some kids it’s art and for some, it’s working on cars. Those are all valid goals and they should be viewed that way.”

When they’re not, Hunter says, it sets a child up for emotional issues, which he says the study reflects.

“Kids today are more vulnerable to finding themselves disappointed, or feeling like they’ve disappointed their parents,” Hunter says. “It takes more to be considered successful than it used to.”

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