The rise of depression in our young people

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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Research suggests that we are more depressed than ever – with our young people particularly affected. Dr Stephanie Thornton discusses why this might be and offers some advice for schools

Here’s an intriguing fact: the generations now in their 80s and 90s reported far less depression (both in their teens and through their lives) than their children – and this despite the fact that their life experiences were obviously far more stressful and depressing (Hitler and the Second World War, post-war austerity, insurgencies, etc) than those of their offspring, the “baby boomers”.

In turn, those baby boomers have reported far less depression than their children – though there was actually more political, economic and even terrorist turmoil for the baby boom generation than for their offspring.

Reports from mental health practitioners suggest that current teenagers are the most depressed of all.

Of course, there are always individuals with personal reason to be depressed, or with a genetic disposition to depressive illness. However, the general trend noted above suggests that the levels of depression evident in our society are a reflection of cohort effects: social factors affecting whole generations.

Exactly what those cohort effects might be is a matter of discussion among experts. One conclusion seems clear, though: the rise in depression does not reflect material comfort or the state of the world.

Depression has increased as matters improved in those areas. Cross-cultural research supports this conclusion: people living in perilous insecurity and poverty in slums and shanty towns are often far happier than we privileged Westerners.

Research within our own society confirms that the material things we imagine are necessary to happiness, such as prosperity, secure jobs, even health and physical attractiveness, are only minimally related to how happy or how depressed we feel.

Such observations have led to the suggestion that the rising tide of depression is not driven by material issues, but rather by existential ones: that the malaise is spiritual in the broadest sense of the word, lying in contemporary values and perceptions of self in relation to the world.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote a ninth beatitude: “Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they will never be disappointed.”

Expectations have increased immensely through the past 70 years or so. Laudable efforts to open the doors of equal opportunity for all have led our young to have expectations far beyond the wildest imaginings of their forebears, and actually, far beyond the capacity of society to provide.

Many will fail to live up to these expectations, and many of those who will eventually succeed will fear that outcome (particularly as the media foster the narrative of “a lost generation” of the young – a spin as depressing as it is absurd).

Nothing generates disappointment as effectively as false expectation, a dashed hope. If you expect to be given a pound, you will be thrilled with two pounds. But if you were expecting £20, two pounds is simply depressing.

Our teenagers have lives that the denizens of shanty towns would die for. But they may be depressed by the fear of a “£2 reality” rather than the “£20 aspiration” society constantly suggests they deserve – even though £2 is often just fine.

Britain was once famously the home of the “stiff upper lip”. Today it is acceptable to express woe in ways our forebears would have found frankly embarrassing.

This change is not simply a matter of manners: the self-control of the past was arguably a commitment to courage, to making the best of things (“make do and mend”). This existential stance is likely to have affected subjective experience as well as overt expression, warding off a decline into depression. Today’s young are seemingly not given (or taught?) this self-control or courage as in the past.

In fact, many young people are taught nothing at all about the management of their own emotions (nor even given the idea that emotions can, and sometimes should, be managed), leaving them emotionally naïve and at the mercy of depression.

But it is likely that the biggest factor relevant to depression stems from the progressive changes to life brought about by social mobility and the internet. In the past, people tended to live their lives out in strong, stable communities, held together by family, work and location.

It is easy to romanticise the past: doubtless living in tight neighbourhoods where everyone knows everyone else and life is collective had its own problems. But collective life shapes roots, a collective identity, a community in which there is a sense of belonging.

It generates powerful shared goals, ties and responsibilities, the sense of mattering. Such belonging and mattering are, as the psychiatrist survivor of Nazi concentration camps Viktor Frankl pointed out, the things that make life meaningful, that create “survivors” who are robust in the face of even horrific challenges.

But society isn’t like that any more. Today’s young are growing up in a culture that idealises individual identity and activity above the collective, where mattering and belonging may be measured in the shallow and ephemeral pools of Facebook friends rather than in the consistent demands of local community.

They are growing up in a fragmented society, where shockingly few families even sit down to eat a meal together any more, where there is no concrete community to provide the esprit de corps that once gave our ancestors strong foundations for meaning and hope, and still buoy up many slum and shanty town communities.

Adolescence is, famously, a key point at which one poses the existential questions as to the meaning and value of life, puzzling out how one should live, what one should expect, how to be. Answering those questions poses an ever tougher challenge in a progressively fragmented, individualistic society that is also strongly aspirational and emotionally naïve.

It is very plausible to suggest that this increasing existential/spiritual challenge is a factor in the rise in depression across recent generations.

What should schools do? Of course, individuals showing the signs of depression need direct intervention and support. But depression should not always be individualised and “medicalised”.

There is a strong case to be made for introducing elements into the curriculum that will address existential issues associated with depression for everyone. The obvious place to do that is through religious education programmes, which are already supposed to address some of the issues raised here, though few do. Could we use RE more effectively, in countering the existential bases of depression for a generation?

Great expectations

There is nothing wrong in aiming high. In fact, every child should be encouraged, and given the opportunity to achieve their best.

The problem comes when aspirations are narcissistic: rooted in an abstract sense of entitlement without concrete foundation. This creates a fragile, rootless self-esteem that is very vulnerable to collapse and depression. What may I aspire to? What should I aspire to? On what basis? Explicit discussion of such issues can create values based more healthily in effort than entitlement, and a more robust relationship with the world.

Ancient virtues

Current RE programmes already explore the (generally shared) teachings from various religions and non-religious philosophies concerning virtues such as courage, self-control and so on. But these values have a psychological as well as religious dimension, in terms of both their consequences and the process through which they can be achieved. Might making that psychological dimension more salient through discussion and exploration better provide the young with new attitudes toward, and tools for more effectively managing, disappointment and depression?

Responsibility and meaning

In the end, of course, the meaning of life is a matter of faith or personal decision. But the research endorses Viktor Frankl’s view that a sense of meaning is vital to emotional welfare, and that this sense of meaning is strongest when rooted in human relationships of mattering and responsibility. Practitioners working with depressed teenagers have reported benefits from exploring existential meaning with the young in this way.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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