A new study has found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age who were studied in the Great Depression era.
The findings, culled from responses to a popular psychological questionnaire used as far back as 1938, confirm what counselors on campuses nationwide have long suspected as more students struggle with the stresses of school and life in general.
"It's another piece of the puzzle - that yes, this does seem to be a problem, that there are more young people who report anxiety and depression," says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and the study's lead author. "The next question is: What do we do about it?"
Though the study, released Monday, does not provide a definitive correlation, Twenge and mental health professionals speculate that a popular culture increasingly focused on the external - from wealth to looks and status - has contributed to the uptick in mental health issues.
Pulling together the data for the study was no small task. Led by Twenge, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.
Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938. A few individual categories increased at an even greater rate - with six times as many scoring high in two areas:
"hypomania," a measure of anxiety and unrealistic optimism (from 5% of students in 1938 to 31% in 2007)
and depression (from 1% to 6%).
Twenge said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.