Mental Health Issues Grew In Young People In The Past 10 Years, But Not In People Over 26

Ae Cherayut/Shutterstock

Young people are under an enormous amount of pressure, and new research comes out seemingly every day that shows the health impacts of that pressure. A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that the percentage of young adults with mental health issues has grown in the past 10 years, but a similar change wasn’t seen in people over the age of 26. The researchers suggest that access to smartphones, and the corresponding decrease in sleep, might be factors that uniquely affect Gen Z, rather than millennials. What’s more, the researchers found that young adults — teens and people in their early 20s — were increasingly at risk of severe mental health issues.

The study looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has monitored substance use and mental health issues in teens since 1971, and analyzed over 200,000 teens’ responses from 2005- 2017. The researchers also looked at data from over 400,000 adults from 2008-2017. What they found was that rates of major depression increased by over 50 percent in teens, from 8.7 to 13.2 percent, and by over 60 percent in people aged 18-25, from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent. The number of people under 26 experiencing suicidal thoughts or “other suicide-related outcomes” increased by nearly 50 percent, from 7 to 10.3 percent, according to a statement on the research.

This research follows on the heels of a major new survey from the Pew Research Center, which found that seven in 10 teens said mental health was a big concern for them, and another report from the Born This Way Foundation suggesting around 50 percent of teens don’t know where to get mental health care.

"More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book "iGen" and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said in a statement about the study. "These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

One of the reasons for this disparity, the researchers suggested, was the access Gen Z and the youngest millennials have to smartphones and social media. While numerous studies over the years have associated new technology with declining mental health, there’s little research to definitively explain why access to information might impact mental health in this way. Twenge suggested in the statement that older adults might have “more stable” social lives than young adults, and rapidly changing social relationships mediated by social media might have a bigger impact on younger adults.

Twenge also suggested that older adults might have better strategies for not letting technology interfere with their sleep compared with younger adults. Sleep deprivation is linked with higher rates of mental health issues, Harvard Health says, and research has shown that only around 50 percent of teens get even eight hours of sleep during the week. (This stat should be contrasted with the fact that teens may need more than nine hours of sleep a night for optimal health.)

While this study did not look at how intersecting identities may impact young people’s mental health outcomes, it’s important to look at how generations may have different mental health outcomes, and correspondingly, different mental health needs.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.