Origins of the Youth Mental Health Crisis

With so many factors influencing the development of adolescents and young adults, there are many theories as to what is prompting the rise in mental health disorders across this age group. A few notable correlations between mental health issues and circumstances common to the lives of today’s youth have become quite evident, including:

Too much academic pressure, too little time

Children feel immense amounts of pressure to excel academically; to earn the highest GPA, participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, and to get into top-ranked universities. To achieve this level of academic success, children need considerable time for homework, studying, and partaking in clubs and sports — all of which can quickly fill entire days, weeks, and weekends. This constant pressure to be at the top of their class paired with the time needed to achieve that status — plus time to see family, socialize, and cultivate personal hobbies — can prove a stressful balancing act for adolescents and young adults.

In a study that examined 4,317 students in high-achieving communities, 56% (2418) said that homework was a primary source of stress, with less than 1% (43) claiming that homework did not stress them. Similarly, the American Psychological Association published a survey in which teens reported that their levels of stress during the school year were much higher than they felt was healthy. The survey featured a 10-point scale, on which a rating of 3.9 was the highest level of stress considered healthy. Teens responded with an average stress level of 5.8, which was even higher than the 5.1 average of adults who took the survey

Excessive digital device and social media use

Utilizing a survey sample of 388,275 U.S. adolescents, a 2017 study found a clear relationship between electronic device use and exhibiting at least one suicide risk factor, such as depression, loneliness, or social isolation. Risks increased after two or more hours per day of device use, with 33% (128,131) reporting at least one suicide-related outcome, such as suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts, compared to 29% (112,600 ) of those who used devices only one hour per day. Adolescents who used their devices five hours or more per day were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those who used them for just one hour per day.

When it comes to social media use, there are many correlations and theories as to its contribution to recent upticks in depression. A study that looked at the social media use of 753 Canadian students in grades seven through 12 found that 25.2% (190) spent over two hours per day on social media, 54.3% (409) spent two hours or less, and 20.5% (154) said they rarely or did not check social media at all. Spending two hours or more on social media every day was independently associated with a poor self-rating of mental health and high levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation. This phenomenon has been seen so frequently in heavy users that researches have labeled it “Facebook depression,” suggesting that the intensity of these social media platforms — i.e., places where young people are always contactable, exposed to unrealistic representations of reality, face possible online bullying and/or peer pressure, etc. — could trigger depression or exacerbate existing conditions

Researchers have also seen a notable difference in depression risk depending on whether a social media user is active or passive. One study found that teenagers who followed strangers on Instagram more often engaged in comparisons and experienced more depressive symptoms compared to those who mostly followed family and friends. These results would imply that, beyond the number of hours spent using it, a critical factor in the link between social media and depression is how an individual chooses to participate.

Compared to traditional bullying, cyberbullying is a relatively new challenge for multiple reasons. Victims are essentially at risk each time they use a smartphone or computer — whether via email, blogs, social networking sites, online games, or text messaging, cyberbullying can happen almost anywhere in the digital world, with virtually no safe haven to which victims can escape. And since these platforms enable potentially embarrassing information and hurtful gossip to spread rapidly across a school or community, the consequences of digital bullying can be lasting and lead to negative impacts on a young person’s social life, academic standing, and mental and physical health. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control, 15% of high school students were victims of cyberbullying in 2017.

And similar to most trends in depression among today’s younger generations, the vast majority of consequences from excessive device use, social media, and cyberbullying tend to negatively impact adolescent girls more so than boys.

Beyond the stress of feeling as if one needs to regularly tend to — and perhaps fend off bullies in — a virtual world, there is also the simple fact that all this time spent online is causing young people to miss out on the real world. Bodies of research demonstrate that in-person social contact is important for mental health, especially for that of teens as they develop social skills that they will carry into adulthood. Socializing online is not as emotionally fulfilling as communicating with someone in person, and does not create the deeply supportive environment needed by young people today (12).

A lack of coping skills

The development of healthy coping mechanisms is necessary for handling the unexpected situations life can present — and since many mental disorders emerge during adolescence, having the right coping skills can prevent them from spiraling out of control. When youth do not receive the support they need to become resilient, it can lead to the use of maladaptive coping skills, many of which are risk factors for depression. These include using alcohol and other drugs, excessive self-blame, self-distraction, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating habits, and behaviors that may lead to violence toward and/or unintended injuries to oneself or others.

In a “First-Year College Experience” survey, researchers examined various challenges faced by young adults as they transition from high school to college. The survey was administered to 1,502 U.S. college students between the ages of 17 and 20 years old. Results showed that students who felt less emotionally prepared for college than their peers were more likely to have a lower grade point average (3.1 vs. 3.4) and to rate their overall college experience as “terrible/poor” (22% vs. 5%; 330 vs.75). 

Almost a third of students reported regularly consuming drugs or alcohol during their first term, and were more likely than those who did not to rate their emotional health worse than their peers (39% vs. 32%; 586 vs.481) and experience negative emotions including stress (56% vs. 47%; 841 vs. 706), anxiety (43% vs. 36%; 646 vs. 541), and feeling overwhelmed (47% vs. 40%; 706 vs. 601). These students also expressed a greater desire for help with emotional preparation for college (65% vs. 58%; 976 vs. 886).

While stress is common in college, 50% (751) of first-year students reported feeling stressed most or all of the time and 36% (541) did not feel that they were in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life — results that indicate a significant lack of necessary coping mechanisms.

Join us over the next few weeks as we explore the causes behind the youth mental health crisis and don’t forget to sign up for the weekly ATAI #InsightNetwork to stay up to see with all the latest on biotech, psychedelic science, and much more. Read part one here.