21 May Depression: The Growing American Mental Health Storm
American mental health seems to be in a downturn.
Days after the suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade, at 55, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that suicides are becoming more common in every age group, but especially in mid-life.
The biggest increase was among men ages 45 to 64, and suicide is rising among mid-life women, too.
Young people — from teens to college students — are another group that appears to be greatly affected by the mental health storm that’s growing in America.
And once a person is ill, depression can make recovery more difficult.
More depressed young
Some of the rise in rates of depression might be attributed to more people seeking care as mental illness becomes less stigmatized. However, the recent bumps in numbers of depressed people have happened too quickly to entirely fit that explanation.
For example, diagnoses of major depression rose by a third between 2013 and 2016, in a report analyzing claims to Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
This data revealed increases in all age groups for both men and women — but particular spikes among teens and young adults through age 35.
In research based on national surveys including the uninsured, more than 11 percent of teens, and 9.6 percent of Americans ages 18 to 25, had major depression in the most recent year.
Thoughts of suicide have also been found to be common among teens, though much smaller numbers take action.
More than 22 percent of American high school girls think about attempting suicide, according to 2013 CDC data. Of that group, 3.6 percent took steps that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or overdose that required medical care.
The numbers were roughly half for boys: Nearly 12 percent considered suicide and less than 2 percent took actions that required medical care.
In surveys that ask teens and college students whether they engage in self-hurting behavior, such as cutting or burning their skin, as many as 40 percent say yes, though it’s not clear whether those figures are rising.
Are smartphones to blame for rising depression rates?
Why now? One big obvious change is the rise of social media and the smartphone.
This was true for individual kids — the more time on the phone, the more likely they were to report symptoms of depression. It was also true for the numbers as a whole, lead author, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, PhD, reported.
Kids began getting smartphones between 2010 and 2015. As the phones spread, overall depression symptoms increased, year by year, she said.
In the same period, visits to counseling centers at colleges jumped 30 percent.
A social media habit has also been tied to depression in studies of 19- to 32-year-olds, though it may matter most how often they look.
For those who are vulnerable to feeling left out, social media shows them acquaintances having more fun than they are. And for those who try to compete, the competition can be constant.
Other research found that loneliness is at “epidemic levels” in the United States.
In a report from Cigna, only around half of Americans said they have daily meaningful in-person conversations with a friend or family member. Most Americans qualify as “lonely.”
For example, when asked how often they feel that no one knows them well, 54 percent said they feel that way always or sometimes.
Generation Z — adults between the ages of 18 and 22 — emerged as the loneliest, regardless of how much time they spent online or on their phones.
More adults — 42 percent — live without a spouse or romantic partner, a number that has grown since 2007 in all age groups under 65.
That number is even higher for those aged 18 to 35. About 61 percent live as singletons — up from 56 percent in 2007.
It’s not clear that married people are happier, healthier, or are less lonely — yet many unpartnered people assume they are and feel left out.
It is clear that living single is tied to less financial security, a Pew Research Center report notes.
More than half of working-age adults without a job were living single in 2017, sharply up from a decade earlier. They don’t have access to a spouse’s health insurance or cushion when their income falls.
What you can do
Although depression can make it much harder, now is the time to take good care of yourself.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, be persistent about finding the right medical care — ideally both medication and counseling — and use that boost to focus on good health habits across life.
Exercise helps, though research suggests it won’t substitute for therapy. Mind your diet and sleep, as well as hygiene, and cultivate in-person social ties.
Keep a close eye on activities
For parents, the tendency is to worry most about teens who are acting out. But, according to a 2014 study of more than 12,000 European teens, an “invisible risk group” of teens don’t exercise, skip sleep, and spend a lot of time online. More than 13 percent were depressed and nearly 6 percent attempted suicide.
Parents can promote in-person social activities for children to help them fight the trend of spending hours alone in their room and limit screen time by barring phones and laptops from beds.
Watch the diet
Loss of appetite emerged as a red flag for suicidal thinking in a study in Japan of more than 18,000 teens.
What your child eats matters, too. Skipping vegetables and fruits and sticking to foods like meat and bread is depressing, according to research with more than 7,000 teens.
Don’t wait more than a year to get help for a child with suicidal thinking: Research suggests that treatment within the first 6 to 12 months after the suicidal thoughts begin is most effective.