The Rise and Rise of Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression levels continue to rise and rise, despite the numerous national and local initiatives put in place to try and counter them.
The Psychiatric Morbidity Survey provides data on both treated and untreated mental health issues among adults in England. Their most recent survey results (from 2014, published in 2016), indicate that one in six adults in England has a common mental health disorder (which includes anxiety and depression). This translates to about one woman in five and one man in eight having a mental health disorder, and the rate has increased in women and remained largely stable in men.
Perhaps even more alarming is that rates of self-harming have increased in men and women and across age groups since 2007.
Despite all the programmes and talking, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression continue to increase and impact on more and more people. The human cost of all this anxiety and depression, and the impacts that go with it, can’t even be estimated.
Now, new data from America has suggested that there has been a generational shift in mood disorders towards certain age groups.
A Generational Anxiety & Depression Mental Health Time-Bomb?
As the above English survey reports, at any one time, a sixth of the population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem. Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are on the rise and women are more likely to be affected than men (although men are more likely to take their own lives). The BBC put some of the data into charts that highlight the scale of the mental health problem: Mental Health Charts.
The impact and burden of mental health issues is felt not just by the individual, but also by friends, family and colleagues around them and by all of us as a society as a whole. Mental health is an issue for every one of us. Whether we know it or not, the likelihood is there are at least several people we know who are experiencing psychological distress.
Now data from America suggests that the increase in mental health disorders is being primarily driven by adolescents and young adults. And whilst the data is specifically from the USA, here in England we tend to be quite culturally aligned with trends there.
Drawing from a nationally representative survey of adolescents and adults (and using available date 2005-2017), they found that rates of major depressive episode in the last year increased substantially amongst adolescents aged 12-17 and young adults aged 18-25. Serious psychological distress in the past month and suicide-related outcomes (suicidal ideation, plans, attempts and deaths by suicide) in the last year also increased amongst 18-25 year olds.
“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s (vs. the mid-2000s) experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide and took their own lives. These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years old and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes rather than an overall increase across all ages.”
The data found that the percentage of adults meeting the criterion for serious psychological distress had risen amongst most age groups, with a larger increase amongst younger adults, as well as the increase in major depressive episode. Psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, are continuing to rise. That in itself is a big issue, but the fact that the increase is primarily coming from younger age groups is of even bigger concern.
In conclusion they found that the rates of recent serious psychological distress, past year major depressive episode, and past year suicidal-related outcomes increased amongst adolescents aged 12 to 17 and young adults aged 18-25, with smaller and less consistent increases amongst adults aged 26 and over.
“The results suggest that cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger people compared to older people.” This has the potential to be a ticking time-bomb as far as mental health goes.
Why Are Anxiety & Depression Rising?
The reason that this rise in psychological distress in younger generations born in the 1990s (often termed late Millennials and early iGen) is such an issue is because past major depression is a strong predictor of increased risk of recurrence. “Given that earlier onset of mood disorders predicts increased odds of chronicity, recurrent episodes of psychiatric and medical hospitalization, impaired functioning, suicide attempts, and death by suicide…these results are concerning.”
The likelihood is an ever increasing impact of anxiety and depression in people’s lives and a need to introduce more effective mental health programmes right now before this generation and those that follow are further affected. And, of course, it needs the finances behind it to provide the help that people need.
In addition, none of these seems to be down to the ‘usual suspects’ for any increase in mental health issues such as economic factors and drug / alcohol use among adolescents and younger people.
The report authors suggest that more research is needed to understand the role of technology and social media use and sleep disturbance play in this rise amongst younger people. It may be that increased time online and on social media, and less time with others face to face, is impacting on well-being and mood. General internet use, online bullying behaviour and the ability to use the internet for suicide related purposes are all potential contributors to the rise in anxiety and depression. Of course, the internet and social media can also be used constructively to help people find support, learn coping strategies and reduce feelings of isolation.
In addition, sleep may also be a factor in these mental health trends. If young people are sleeping less it may be impacting on mood disorders and depression. Again, time spent on tablets and smartphones in the evening, or in delaying sleep, may be impacting on sleep duration and quality and so affecting their mental health.
As is often the case, it could be all or none of these issues and they may be contributing in different ways. However, the overall message is clear that more needs to be done to more effectively address psychological distress and promote good mental health. And whilst not the whole answer, healthy practices such as limiting electronic devices, being social media aware, getting active, eating healthily and prioritising getting enough sleep are certainly likely to form parts of the solution.
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Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014
Twenge, J.M., Cooper, A.B., Joiner, T.E., Duffy, M.E. and Binau, S.G., 2019. Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of abnormal psychology.