Young, Anxious, Depressed

Today five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

That’s from Peter Gray, research psychologist and professor and Psychology Today blogger. The entire post is here.

Readers’ Digest version.

First, Gray explains:

The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, during World War II, during the Cold War, and during the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than with the way the world actually is.

Next, he highlights two reasons. Still quoting:

1) A decline in young people’s sense of personal control over their fate. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than are those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. The data indicate that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious. “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed. “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

2) A shift toward extrinsic, rather than intrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person–such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks. There’s evidence that young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past.

Gray sees the two primary reasons as interrelated:

The shift toward extrinsic goals could well be related causally to the shift toward an external locus of control. We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get rich. I can, through spiritual practices or philosophical delving, find my own sense of meaning in life, but that doesn’t guarantee that people will find me more attractive or lavish praise on me. To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals I can control my emotional wellbeing. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others’ judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.

Gray concludes by suggesting formal schooling is a large part of the problem. His solution? Less time in school, more time in unstructured outside of school activities. Over time, I’ve become more enamored with alternative education; consequently, I find his argument somewhat convincing. But I find his description of the problem more illuminating than his suggested remedy.

Here are three things, that in my opinion, could reduce anxiety and depression in young people.

1) More sleep.

2) More movement. With friends and minimal adult supervision (so that it’s more fun). Fifteen has been taking “Zumba” aerobic-like classes with a friend a few afternoons a week at the “Y”. Even better, thirty minutes of walking or running or swimming or cycling or weight lifting five or six mornings a week. I’d like to see clinical trials studying the effects of this proposal on adolescent anxiety and depression.

3) Compulsory service-learning as a school requirement. I could be talked into a year of National Service quite easily too. Recall the quote, “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” I have no evidence, just a gut instinct that a substantive “other-regarding” experience would reduce anxiety and depression.

2 thoughts on “Young, Anxious, Depressed

  1. This article came at a very opportune time! This year’s 3rd grade class has some very needy students. They are operating on an external locus of control. Besides formal schooling, another factor is somehow an overabundance of video games. Rather than developing their own intrinsic imaginations, they have relied upon the entertainment industry to build imaginary worlds. Video games make convenient baby sitters. Third grader boys report that they are playing violent ones such as Call of Duty Black Ops. I increasingly see young, depressed and angry boys. It is so sad, especially since our school cannot afford a school counselor. I can listen, but I am not a trained mental health professional. Parents strapped for cash have few resources to call upon. There is an inner bleakness in a few of my students that definitely calls upon unstructured time, the healthy effects of the great outdoors, and a spiritual awakening.

    • Thanks for sharing Suzanne. “Inner bleakness” is a poignant phrase. Your update definitely falls under the “teaching challenges” heading.

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