A Pew Research Center Fact Tank analysis of a 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found more disturbing news about American teenage depression.
Teen girls are heavily prone to depression, with roughly 2.4 million in this study expressing that they had at least one depressive bout in 2017 compared to 845,000 boys. Comparing data from 2007, the survey results showed that the numbers for teenagers battling depression increased 59 percent, with girls leading boys by 20 percentage points. Conducting their own study on teens ages 13 to 17 last year, Pew found that three of 10 said they felt “tense or nervous” almost every day.
As an educator, I have begun to follow research on teen depression more closely. My eyes were really opened to the seriousness of youth mental health when I decided to let my course theme for my English composition classes focus on iGen, also known as Generation Z, at Ohio State Lima. Technology and social media were significant topics of course discussion, but I was not expecting so many students to write their analytical research papers on depression and how it affects them and their families. Many of their essays contained touching personal testimonies of losing friends to suicide, a parent coping with a mid-life crisis, or their own struggles with stress or panic attacks.
I was deeply moved that my students would share these stories with me and their classmates, and I think writing about depressive orders was therapeutic for them.
Current research is showing that school can be a trigger or stressor for students, as 61 percent of the teens in the Pew study said that they “felt a lot of pressure to get good grades.” I often hear students say they are overly anxious about their coursework, especially their grades in subjects largely perceived to be much harder, such as math, chemistry or biology. They worry that their GPAs will dip, and this adds pressure for those with aspirations of pursuing graduate school.
Another profound fact that I have learned is that high scholastic achievement can be a mask for anxiety, which makes it more difficult to detect than depression. This is one of the main reasons that I am using an iGen-based English theme so that I can provide a caring atmosphere where my students can learn. When my classes have discussed depression and anxiety, students have shared their thoughts on FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and the general perception that social media is the primary cause of unhappiness for their generation.
Many of my students’ comments regarding FOMO supported what a lot of researchers have found. For example, some of my female students expressed feelings of neglect that they or other girls had if they were not invited to a social event that was posted on Instagram. My male students basically shrugged off seeing posts from friends at parties that they were not invited to. While acknowledging the connection between depression and social media use, the majority of my students thus far have felt that their time on Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter cannot be solely blamed for feelings of isolation among their peers. This supports the observations of Dr. Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. In her chapter on mental health in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Twenge writes that “teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person.” Twenge maintains that loneliness increases when teens are heavy into their screen time but have less in-person interaction.
As I continue to read more studies about the rise of teen depression, I am gaining a better understanding of its complexity and why its causes are often difficult to pinpoint. Researchers and doctors are emphasizing that talking more about depression is essential to getting young people the help they need. I believe that the classroom can serve as a safe place for students to express their thoughts and feelings. A listening and attentive ear in a learning environment can definitely strengthen their spirits.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc