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Adolescence is hard, but it’s not necessarily getting harder

Adolescence has always been hard, but there’s not much evidence to suggest it’s worse for kids these days. Petra Bensted/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Adolescence is hard, but it’s not necessarily getting harder

Adolescence can be tough. On Four Corners last night we heard some wonderfully candid reports from young people about the stresses and difficulties they face in contemporary Australia. Many of the pressures were age-old: doing well in school, finding a boyfriend or girlfriend, fitting in. Others were newer: the competition for the most social media followers, the pressure to look “Tumblr-ey” (12-year-old Olivia’s word).

Are kids today more depressed and anxious than those of a generation or two ago? In truth, as best as we can tell, probably not. But mental illness remains an enormous burden for young people: depression and anxiety are the biggest cause of disability for adolescents and young adults in Australia by a wide margin. And while rates of depression and anxiety are probably not getting worse, few would argue that the rates are getting any better, which we might have hoped for with improvements in many other areas of health.

Adolescence

Adolescence is marked by rapid changes. If we think for a moment what the period encompasses – if we strip it back from the more recent concept of being a “teenager” – then at heart it is about the transition from dependence to independence, from being reliant on our parents for our sustenance to having the capacity to become a parent. We move from the relative comfort of family and local community into the big wide world with all of its complexity.

Adolescence is heralded by the obvious external changes that come with sexual maturity – the extra hair, curves and bulges – but also less obvious internal ones. These include a slowly emerging sense of identity, the ability to cope with strong emotions, and the capacity to navigate a much more complex social milieu. Alongside all of this are profound changes in brain organisation.

All adolescents have felt pressure to fit in, but social media can make the feeling more profound. Jason Howie/Flickr, CC BY

It is an intense period for all of us — we remember adolescence more clearly and vividly than any other period of our lives, giving rise to the so-called “reminiscence bump”.

Most of us emerge from adolescence intact, becoming the people we are today. But it’s also a period of vulnerability. It is the period when most of the significant mental illnesses emerge – and no wonder.

Is it getting harder?

Are depression and anxiety now more common in adolescents? That is the thesis of much recent commentary, including last night’s Four Corners episode. Some studies do suggest that young people are more depressed (I will focus on depression, because that is the illness for which we have most data).

Many of these studies have relied on asking people about past periods of depression and when they began. Older people, born in more distant epochs, report having had less depression and anxiety in their youth than people born more recently. As people get older, though, they tend to have poorer recollection of adolescent periods of depression: perhaps it is a time they would rather forget or, more likely, with distance it just doesn’t seem that it was so bad.

More reliable studies, which collect data on depression as it occurs – or shortly after – aren’t so worrying. They suggest that there hasn’t been an increase in the rate of depression over recent decades: at least since the 1970s, when reliable data started being collected.

Neither does Australian suicide data support the idea that things are getting ever worse. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people – in 2013 it caused more than one in three deaths of young men between 15 and 19 – and a tragedy in every way.

But after the youth suicide rate peaked in the 1990s, it has plateaued at a somewhat lower rate. It is a rate that is too high and that we must work on getting down – in the same way we have reduced the number of young people dying in car accidents – but it is not getting inexorably worse.

Adolescence has always had its pressures – many remain the same from generation to generation, but others are new, or at least more intense. If there was a theme from last night’s Four Corners episode it was the intense social scrutiny that young people experience with the rise of social media.

Lilli, 13, put it wisely:

it’s pretty much like the same thing that was happening 40 years ago […] but now it’s escalating.

While some stresses are no longer so apparent – today’s adolescents don’t have the same worry about dying from infectious diseases, or being conscripted to fight in bloody wars – they are preoccupied more than ever with how they appear to their peers. This isn’t a trivial concern.

If in the past we could only imagine we were being excluded from social events, young people today are left in no doubt. They can see the anticipatory messages leading up to the event they haven’t been invited to, and then the celebratory photographs of the event itself. And the relentless focus on appearance abetted by social media seems now to have a crueller and more mocking edge.

Adolescence is hard, and if many of us are glad to have made it through to adulthood, we never really escape it. We continue to return to our adolescent years in our memories and dreams for the rest of our lives – with all its pains, all those awkward moments, but with pleasures and an intensity we don’t experience again.