U.S. Pharm. 2024;49(5):4.

The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in older adults, according to recent research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or nonexistent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

Dr. Twenge and her coauthors analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey that has tracked drug and alcohol use, mental health, and other health-related issues in individuals aged 12 years and older in the United States since 1971. They looked at survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 years from 2005 to 2017 and almost 400,000 adults aged 18 years and older from 2008 to 2017.

The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52% in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 and 63% in young adults aged 18 to 25 years from 2009 to 2017. There was also a 71% increase in the number of young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days from 2008 to 2017. The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47% from 2008 to 2017.

There was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing depression or psychological distress during corresponding time periods. The researchers even saw a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals aged older than 65 years.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” suggested Dr. Twenge, who believes this trend may be partially due to increased use of electronic communication and digital media, which may have changed modes of social interaction enough to affect mood disorders. She also noted that research shows that young people are not sleeping as much as in previous generations.

Digital media use may have had a bigger impact on teens and young adults because older adults’ social lives are more stable and might have changed less than teens’ social lives have in the past 10 years, said Dr. Twenge. Older adults might also be less likely to use digital media in a way that interferes with sleep. For example, they might be better at not staying up late on their phones or using them in the middle of the night.

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