For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed, and No One Is Quite Sure Why

Generally speaking, sweepingly pessimistic statements about society should be taken with a grain of salt. When someone claims pop music is getting much dumber, or college kids are much more prone to mental illness, odds are pretty good the claim in question is a bit overblown. Overall, we’re often more attuned to the negative stories and anecdotes than positive ones, meaning that news coverage of terrible events, for example, can cause us to develop a distorted view of things.

Sometimes, though, there are exceptions. And an interesting, under-discussed one involves young people and mental health. In short: Ever since the 1930s, young people in America have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed. And no one knows exactly why.
One of the researchers who has done the most work on this subject is Dr. Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University who is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.She’s published a handful of articles on this trajectory, and the underlying story, she thinks, is a rather negative one. “I think the research tells us that modern life is not good for mental health,” she said.

A key thing to understand before diving into her argument is that there are important methodological obstacles to accurately gauging how the prevalence of anxiety and depression wax and wane over time. The words “depression” and “anxiety” themselves, after all, mean very different things to someone asked about them in 1935 as compared to 1995, so surveys that invoke these concepts directly only have limited utility for longitudinal study. To get around this, Twenge prefers to rely on surveys and inventories in which respondents are asked about specific symptoms which are frequently correlated with anxiety and depression (she said that there’s a lot of symptomological overlap between the two). Questions like “Do you have trouble falling asleep?” mean similar things in 1935 as compared to 1995.

Much of the richest data on this question, then, comes from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which has been administered to high school and college students since the 1930s — and which includes many questions about symptoms. Specifically, it asks — among many other things — whether respondents feel well-rested when they wake up, whether they have trouble thinking, and whether they have experienced dizzy spells, headaches, shortness of breath, a racing heart, and so on