Major depression is on the rise for adolescents and young adults – here’s what this means for parents

A new report from Blue Cross Blue Shield shows that major depression is on the rise among Americans from all age groups, but is rising fastest among teens and young adults. [1] In a report issued May 10, 2018, BCBS announced the following important data:

1. The number of people of all ages and genders diagnosed with major depression has risen dramatically by 33% since 2013.

2. The groups experiencing the most significant increases are millennials (up 47% from 2013) and adolescents (up 65% for girls and 47% for boys from 2013).

These numbers are likely an under-representation because they are limited to people who are part of the BCBS system and only measure those who receive a formal diagnosis of major depression. It is well known that the majority of people who report symptoms of depression have not been diagnosed treated for it.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that just 20% of an estimated 15 million children ages 3 through 17 who have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder in a given year are ever diagnosed and receive treatment.

Major depression is the second most impactful health condition for the nation. BCBS reports that 85% of people who are diagnosed with major depression also have one or more additional serious chronic health conditions and nearly 30 percent have four or more other conditions. These health conditions include heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, and, of course, eating disorders. (Mental Health America) People who are diagnosed with major depression use healthcare services more than other commercially insured Americans. (BCBS)

What this means for parents

An increase in rates of depression among all our children, especially among our girls, should cause significant alarm for parents. For centuries, our culture has chronically discounted the importance of mental health care. This lack of societal awareness for mental health is resulting in devastating lifelong effects for all of us.

Most parents are under-prepared for the emotional caregiving necessary to raise healthy children in today’s fast-paced, high-stress, lonely, and distracted emotional ecosystem. This is not because parents are bad – it is an indication of a societal breakdown. Our children are growing up in emotional deserts, and it is taking a toll on their health.

Here are the societal factors that are likely contributing to our kids’ increasing rates of depression:

Fractured communities: Our kids are being raised in an environment that is distinctly not conducive to human emotional health. We are social animals, designed to live in close-knit communities. Most families today operate more like islands than communities.

Lack of emotional hygiene: Our kids are taught to wash their hands constantly, but with so much disease linked to depression, we should actually be teaching them the emotional hygiene needed to maintain peace of mind.

Stressed parents: Kids are acutely attuned to the emotional states of their parents. Both parents work full-time than ever before, yet our society provides woefully inadequate support for working parents. Parents are under more stress than ever before and are often unable to provide the level of care they want to their kids.

Social media: We can’t discuss mental health without addressing social media, which has infiltrated our kids’ lives and resulted in significant damage to their mental health. Studies have found that the more time young people spend on social media, the more likely they are to report sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression. [2] Social media has a distinct impact on body image especially, and people who spend the most time on social media experience 2.6x higher risk for eating concerns and body image concerns. [3]

What parents can do

We cannot individually fix our society – that is something that we must take on as a group culture. It’s a long-term effort that is overwhelming even for the most dedicated social activists. But we can make changes in how we parent to help protect our own children from the impacts of our emotional deserts and hopefully reduce their chances of developing a mental illness like major depression or an eating disorder.

Here are five things parents can do to counter-balance the societal forces that are building an ecosystem of mental illness for our kids:

1. Build a community: Humans evolved, mentally and physically, to exist in small group communities. These communities provided children with access to multiple sources of information and care outside of their two parents. In other words, communities meant less pressure for individual parents! Find ways to build a community of other adults who your child can learn from and lean on.

2. Learn (and teach) emotional hygiene: Our brains develop emotionally before they develop intellectually. Our society tends to discount the emotional experience, but it’s hurting everyone. Learn about emotional hygiene, which involves recognizing emotions, naming them, and processing them in adaptive, healthy ways. Emotions that are repressed will always come out in some way and at some time, and they are usually much angrier and uglier after having spent time in the mind’s “jail for bad thoughts.”

3. De-stress your life: Parents are feeling pulled in far too many directions today, and the result is high-stress lifestyles. This stress is unhealthy for us, and it has a trickle-down effect on our children. We need to set healthy boundaries with work and our cell phones while investing in reflective time alone and pleasant relationships with others. Most of us have to learn what boundaries are and how to set them. We also need to learn to be more assertive for our own needs, preferences, and desires. Doing this work will make a huge impact on your child’s lifelong mental health.

4. Limit social media: Our kids believe they have a right to be on social media, and it can feel impossible to pry their phones away from their hands. But we can do this, and we absolutely must. We don’t need to outlaw social media, but we do need to put controls on it as long as we are paying the bills. Our kids’ brains are not mature enough to handle the addictive and damaging nature of social media. Parents must stand up to our kids’ phones and make them a privilege, not a right.

Parents alone cannot prevent depression, but we can help reduce our kids’ chances of developing depression. We can also help our kids who already have depression recover faster by recognizing the signs and getting comprehensive treatment (not limited to medication) as soon as possible. Remember that emotional disorders are family affairs, and one child’s depression may be a good reason for the whole family to make some changes to improve the home’s emotional ecosystem.


[1] Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health, BCBS. The BCBS Health of America report is an ongoing effort by BCBS to document meta-data on American health by aggregating and analyzing anonymized health data from its 41 million member health records.

[2] Levenson, JC, et al, “Social Media Use Before Bed and Sleep Disturbance Among Young Adults in the United States: A Nationally Representative Study,” Sleep, 2017 Sep 1;40(9).

[3] Sidani, J., et al, “The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among US Young Adults,” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, September (2016), Volume 116, Issue 9: Pages 1465–1472.

 

 

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