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Education Reporter

More Youth Depressed Now than During Great Depression
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A new study found that five times more American high school and college students struggle with mental health issues today than young adults who were the same age during the Great Depression era. Researchers at five universities analyzed more than 77,000 respondents to the popular Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory from 1938 to 2007.

Two mental health categories showed almost a six-fold increase. Hypomania, a measure of anxiety and unrealistic optimism, was detected in 31% of students in 2007 as compared to 5% of students in 1938. Depression was noted in 6% of students in 2007, versus only 1% in 1938.

The study also found a significant increase in "psychopathic deviation," which is defined as having difficulties relating to authority figures and feeling as though the rules don't apply to you. The number of youth who scored high in that mental health category rose from 5% in 1938 to 24% in 2007.

Jean Twenge, Ph.D., lead author of the study, suggested the current numbers may even be low, given the prevalence of antidepressant and psychotropic medications prescribed to youth today.

The study did not offer definitive reasons for the increase in mental health issues, but Twenge and other experts suspect cultural influences that emphasize external measures of success such as looks, status and wealth. Twenge is the author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. The book, published in 2006, makes the case that pop culture creates unhealthy pressures that negatively impact youth.

Other mental health professionals have chronicled the mistakes of so-called "helicopter" parents, who hover over their children to protect them from every perceived slight and failure. Such children don't develop the real-life coping skills needed to stick to a budget or accept criticism from a boss.

"If you don't have these skills, then it's very normal to become anxious," says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Alderman hopes the new study will sound the alarm for well-meaning but overprotective parents.

More research is needed to pinpoint the causes for the upswing, but the study does provide hard numbers for the perception among practitioners that a growing number of students have mental health concerns. "It actually provides some support to the observations," says Scott Hunter, who has counseled students at the University of Virginia.

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