1 in 5 Teens Have Symptoms of Depression, What We Know

  • Researchers found in 2020 that the depression rate in Americans age 12 and older was about 9 percent.
  • However, it rose to 17 percent among teenagers and young adults.
  • Depressive symptoms were most common among 18 to 25 year olds, although the number of people seeking help remained consistently low.

New research shows that nearly 10 percent of Americans are living with depression, with the rate being about twice as high in teenagers and young adults.

“Our study updates estimates of depression prevalence for the US population through 2020 and confirms the escalating increase in depression from 2015 to 2019,” said study lead author Renee D. Goodwin, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in a statement.

The study was published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

She noted that this reflects a public health crisis that was already worsening in the US before the pandemic hit.

Researchers used data from the 2015-2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative study of US subjects ages 12 and older.

They found that in 2020, the last-12-month depression rate among Americans in this age group was about 9 percent; however, it rose to 17 percent among teenagers and young adults.

“Major depression is a clinical disorder, so it’s characterized by persistently low or depressed mood, sad mood, and loss of interest in activities,” said Dr. Shawna Newman, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

While the prevalence of depression in adults aged 35 and over remained unchanged, the disorder was most prevalent in those aged 18 to 25, with the number of people seeking help remaining consistently low.

“Our results showed that most adolescents with depression from 2015 to 2020 have not spoken or spoken to a healthcare professional about symptoms of depression, nor received pharmacologic treatment,” Goodwin said in a statement.

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Researchers also found that:

  • Depression rates among non-Hispanic whites exceeded all other racial/ethnic groups.
  • Depression was higher in women than in men and in adults who were not currently or previously married.
  • Although depression increased in all income groups, the largest increase was in those with the lowest household income.

“The key here to meeting the criteria is sustained low depressed mood,” Newman explained.

Newman said although the official criteria is two weeks, it’s more like a month or two.

“Two weeks, a month, maybe even two months, and that makes things clearer,” she explained. “That’s the way it is stubborn. That’s different from heartache or excitement — a lot of times people use this kind of language, everyone does it: ‘I’m feeling depressed today.’”

dr Noshene Ranjbar, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson, said possible causes of rising rates of depression include genetic factors, substance use (such as alcohol), and environmental or social factors.

“This includes loneliness, loss of loved ones, job, finances or anything else that is particularly distressing, having an illness, affected by racism or prejudice against one’s own gender, sexuality, belief, culture or way of life to be,” she said.

According to Ranjbar, so can any other change in one’s life that affects our ability to cope.

“Adverse childhood experiences and trauma can also increase someone’s risk of developing depression later in life,” she added.

Stephanie G. Thompson, LCSW, director of clinical operations for adolescents in San Diego for Lightfully Behavioral Health, said the pandemic is playing a big role in causing mental distress.

“Prices [of depressive symptoms] tripled when the COVID pandemic first broke out, it increased from 8.5 percent of the population to 27.8 percent in 2020, 32.8 percent in 2021 and continues to rise today,” Thompson said

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She pointed out that the pandemic has caused a global crisis in all aspects of life for many reasons, including isolation and fear fueled by the unknown about the course and ultimate outcome of the pandemic.

“While older adults have historically experienced depression more than most, teenagers today are more prone to major depressive disorders,” Thompson said.

Newman said one reason is that their social and developmental needs are greater.

“The developmental imperative in this age group is so focused on socialization and emotional growth that isolation, confinement, distancing, masking — is profoundly difficult for adolescents,” she said. “Because biologically they require facial expressions, body language; They are very social because humans are very social animals – but youngsters crave it, they need it.”

She emphasized that the loss of peer interaction, reduced contact with supports like teachers, group activities, and even just walking down the hallway in a normal high school had suddenly disappeared.

“It’s a disaster!” said Newman. “For them, school is almost a primary place where we are evaluated and treated by psychological and often psychiatric services.

Newman believes that perhaps 80 percent of children who rely on school-based services to meet their needs are not getting them.

“They are at home with their thoughts and a computer,” she said.

“But experiences that are inherently meant to be three-dimensional, or four dimensions if you count the time, where you’re in a space that has purpose and goal, and you have groupthink and the teacher and a whole interaction, that’s crucial and it was gone in a second,” Newman continued.

According to Thompson, teenagers face serious difficulties as they navigate adulthood, including inflation and college debt.

“However, teens face a very different dilemma due to the rise in student loan debt and the cost of living,” she said. “These alone create their own national crisis, and youth are extremely nervous about making decisions and taking on responsibilities they no longer feel confident they can handle.”

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She added that due to rising divorce rates, longer lifespans, and frequently changing interests in relationship types, they are also choosing to avoid commitment.

“The unknown of the future has created an overwhelming sense of dread regarding decision-making in all aspects of her life,” she continued.

Thompson believes it is critical to focus on continuing efforts to normalize mental health service use, to speak up, and to create more accessible mental health resources.

She said one of the best places for easily accessible resources is in school.

“Although some public school districts have a counselor or social worker on staff, addressing the prevalence and severity of the mental health needs of today’s teens is not enough,” she continued.

According to Thompson, offering classes on “brain health,” personal well-being, and offering therapeutic services in public schools where teens can easily see a licensed therapist could have a “big” impact on the number of teens who do so in the community Location are care access.

“Accessible therapy for adolescents will reduce the need to take time off work to get adolescents to so many care appointments,” she said. “And more professionally trained mental health professionals in schools and better prepared caregivers will give adults more opportunities to recognize the signs and symptoms of teenage depression earlier.”

A recent study finds that the frequency of depressive symptoms has increased dramatically, with adolescents and young adults being particularly affected.

Experts say many factors could be responsible, but the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a significant role in the increase.

They also say more mental health resources are needed, particularly in schools, to make treatment available to those who need it.

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