Are life’s modern-day challenges harder to tackle than those of yesteryear? That’s the question mental health experts are asking, as a recent study shows that five times more high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues than youth of the same age decades ago.

The study did a comparative analysis of a popular psychological questionnaire used as far back as 1938 and found that more students today struggle with the stresses of school and life in general. Researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school and college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938. Some of the increases were even higher in some categories:

  • hypomania,” a measure of anxiety and unrealistic optimism (from 5 percent of students in 1938 to 31 percent in 2007)
  • depression (from 1 percent to 6 percent)
  • and “psychopathic deviation,” which is loosely related to psychopathic behavior and is defined as having trouble with authority and feeling as though the rules don’t apply to you (from 5 percent in 1938 to 24 percent in 2007).

Lead author of the study, Jean Twenge, who wrote a book on the influence of pop culture on the mental health of young people titled, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” believes that the growing interest in being rich amongst the nation’s youth has a big part to play in the study’s findings.

Experts say that such high expectations only lead to disappointments. They also note that some well-meaning but overprotective parents have left their children with few real-world coping skills, like handling emotional challenges or even balancing their checkbooks. Says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Motefiore Medical Center in New York City, “If you don’t have these skills, then it’s very normal to become anxious.”

Students themselves put the blame on everything from pressure to succeed–self-imposed and otherwise–to keeping up with technology as the causes of increased mental stress. Sarah Ann Slater, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Miami stated, “The unrealistic feelings that are ingrained in us from a young age–that we need to have massive amounts of money to be considered a success–not only lead us to a higher likelihood of feeling inadequate, anxious or depressed, but also make us think that the only value in getting an education is to make a lot of money.”

A New Jersey mother whose daughter is being treated for depression said, “I don’t remember it being this hard. We all wanted to be popular, but there wasn’t this emphasis on being perfect and being super skinny.”

The study’s findings, however, do not prove any correlation between pop culture pressures and mental stress. And it is not without its critics, either: Richard Shadick, a psychologist who directs the counseling center at Pace University in New York states that the sample data weren’t necessarily representative of all college students (Many who answered the MMPI questionnaire were students in introductory psychology courses at four-year institutions). Also, the increased numbers may simply reflect a heightened awareness of mental health services and treatments–like pharmaceuticals–available.

I believe that today’s youth are facing challenges that earlier generations didn’t have to contend with. That’s certainly no surprise to me. Young people of the 1950s were dealing with very different–and I’m certain perceptively greater–challenges than the youth of 1776. Things change, the world changes, and it happens faster every generation. It seems only natural, then, that the faster things evolve, the harder it will be for everyone to deal with these rapid changes. I’m not trying to minimize things here–I just think that it sounds fairly logical that new generations will have their hands full with the world of their era. Whether or not these challenges lead to increased mental health stresses over previous generations is debatable, especially since the mental health field has evolved along with everything else.

What it really says to me is two things. One, mental health is as important as it always will be, since our minds are integral to every aspect of our being. If we don’t have our perceptions in balance, havoc will wreak on our health and our lives. Therefore, obtaining mental balance is critical. If you or your child are having trouble finding this balance, contact me, I can help.

And two, it really brings up the point of having realistic goals and expectations. College does not ensure financial success. Nor does what you see on T.V. constitute reality (despite the moniker as such). If you can’t explain to your kids that success–financial or otherwise–requires a marketable product or service and super-hard work, not a four day work week, not six weeks vacation, not a French-style social system (go ahead, ask your French friends their opportunity for financial freedom and wealth), then, really, it’s your burden to bear when they can’t hack the pressure.

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