Teenagers are experiencing more depression and anxiety than they did a decade or more ago, with doctors reporting an increase in the most serious and difficult cases.
A review of 19 studies conducted across 12 countries has found the majority showed a deterioration in the mental health of teenage girls when it came to depressive and anxious symptoms, with some finding between 30 and 50 per cent of teenage girls were experiencing the symptoms.
The research, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, also found an increase in anxiety and depression among teenage boys, although overall rates were lower.
Study leader William Bor said it was likely a number of changes that had come with the new century were having a negative impact negatively impacting on teenagers’ mental health.
“There are changes in people’s value systems, increasing stress at school, there’s evidence young people are becoming more narcissistic and there is speculation that widening income inequality could also be contributing,” he said. “There is also the wider use of the internet, large amounts of time spent on screens.”
Dr Bor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Queensland and Mater Research at Mater Hospital, said he had been driven to undertake the research because he was seeing a much greater demand from teenagers needing help.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of attendances in casualty departments, with adolescent girls with anxiety and depression,” he said. “The very worrying thing is whether we will see an increase in the female suicide rate.”
James Scott, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, said the fact research was showing mental illness was either stable, or in some cases increasing, among children and teens was concerning: “If you look at a lot of diseases, such as infectious diseases, we are bringing [them] down quite dramatically across the whole world, but with mental health we are having no impact.”
He said the problems he was seeing were increasingly difficult to treat, and often involved serious mental health problems and suicidality, combined with social and family problems.
“I rarely see easy cases any more,” he said. "It’s actually hard to intervene effectively, because you can’t change genetics, you can’t change poverty, child abuse is hard to change and school pressures aren’t going away.”
But he said it also appeared that there was increasing pressure on children to perform.
“The girls I see have very high expectations of themselves, and what they need to achieve, and need to do, and they seem to be more sensitive to these expectations than the boys,” he said. “Most parents I see are just trying to enjoy the journey, so I don’t think we can blame parents for this, but there is a drive for kids to achieve at school and get into university, that is certainly there.”
Acting Beyond Blue chief executive officer Dr Brian Graetz said parents should focus on giving their children skills to cope with stress from an early age.
“It’s skills around managing their emotions, particularly girls, before they get to puberty, they need to understand the need to talk about issues with mum and dad, and then mum and dad giving them confidence to manage these issues,” he said. “So if they do get anxious they have a strategy about how they are going to relax.”
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