Youth depression is a growing problem in America. We explore the possible causes and how to get help for those in
By Aaron Dalton
From the outside, it looked as if Lucas Wolfe had a pretty good life. He grew up in a
middle-class home in the Philadelphia suburbs. No real tragedy marred his childhood. He encountered no
But something went wrong in his junior year at a private Catholic high school. He started experiencing feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, and crushing sadness. It didn’t feel normal.
“I didn’t know where these feelings came from,” Wolfe says. “At first I thought it was just a phase and would
pass. I always focused on something outside of myself—some goal I could reach that would make everything
better and fix me.”
Wolfe thought maybe he was just stressed by worries over which college to attend and what subject to study, but even after he got accepted to Penn State and decided to major in chemical engineering, things did not improve.
Wolfe battled with these dark feelings all through college, not even considering that he might be clinically
depressed. “My life was so good that I did not believe I had earned the right to be depressed,” he says. “I
couldn’t admit to myself that what I was feeling was real. Because I did not admit it, I did not know how to
ask anyone else for help.”
Wolfe set all his hopes on graduating and getting a coveted internship. Surely, he thought, these accomplishments would help him get better. “If I did those two things, I thought I would be successful and valuable,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I was trying to cover up and paper over my depression with achievement.”
He did get the internship, but nothing changed in terms of the dark feelings that clouded his mind. Wolfe realized that if getting the prized internship would not fix him, then neither would graduation. “At that point, I just broke,” he says. “I lost all hope.”
Wolfe couldn’t sleep. He had no appetite—losing 30 pounds in two months. Even at this point, it never occurred to him that he was depressed. “I still had no idea what was wrong, but I realized I needed to get help,” he says.
Wolfe’s experience is not an anomaly. Rates of depression are on the rise in the United States, particularly
among young people. From 2005 to 2015, the incidence of depression among Americans ages 12 to 17 climbed from
8.7% to 12.7%, according to a study from researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and
the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
Even more alarming is the fact that data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows suicide was the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. for young people ages 15-34 in 2016, with 43% more suicides in this age group than a decade ago. (It should be noted, however, that not all suicides are attributable to depression.)
Like other mental health conditions, depression can have complex causes that vary dramatically from one individual to the next. Nonetheless, experts believe that some larger social forces could be influencing the rising rates of depression among young Americans.
From TV to computers, smartphones, and smart watches, we are surrounded by screens, all of them flashing
updates, demanding our attention, distracting and entertaining us.
Few of us are immune to the charms of these screens, but the problem may be more acute for younger people who have been immersed in these technologies practically from the time they were in the cradle. As reported by CNN, a 2016 poll conducted for Common Sense Media found that 50% of teenagers feel addicted to their mobile devices, with 72% of teens saying they felt a need to respond “immediately” to texts, social-media messages, and other notifications.
If young people are engrossed in their screens around the clock, there are concerns they might be missing out on other important aspects of life.
According to the Pew Research Center, 46% of smartphone owners say they “could not live without them.” And for young people, the smartphone has become firmly embedded in their daily lives.
“Research shows that teenagers are spending much less time doing in-person activities,” says Cosette Taillac,
LCSW and Strategic Leader for National Mental Health & Wellness at Kaiser Permanente. “They tend to stay home
in their parents’ houses. For instance, we see that teenagers are waiting longer than previous generations to
get their driver’s licenses. It’s possible that some of the declines we’re seeing in teen pregnancy and certain
kinds of drug use could be due to children spending more time at home, but they are also much more isolated. They’re
not learning socializing skills or building a true social network of people who know them in real life.”
Too much screen time can also mean not enough sleep time. A recent study from the University of Glasgow found that nighttime social-media usage was associated with poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, and higher anxiety and depression levels. And according to the CDC, only about 25% of high school students reported getting 8 or more hours of sleep per night.
Although many young people rely on social media to stay connected to their friends, their relationship with such platforms is complicated.
Social media can support positive connections. It gives young people a chance to associate with others who have shared interests or passions. It can create a sense of community and provide people with opportunities to speak out about challenges they are facing, thereby reducing stigmas and building friendships.
But when things take a turn for the worse, social media gives bullies a bigger stage on which to torment their
targets. “When there is a negative experience on social media, it can escalate quickly and draw in hundreds or
thousands of participants who leave comments and get involved,” warns Taillac. “In that situation, a young
person can end up feeling targeted by so many people.”
Recent research from the University of Pittsburgh showed that usage of multiple (more than 7) social media platforms was associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression among young U.S. adults ages 17 to 32.
Strategic Leader for National
Mental Health & Wellness,
Even young people who never get bullied or harassed online can still feel depressed after viewing what they
perceive to be unattainable and unrealistic body images on social media.
“We know this is one of the big issues, particularly for girls,” Taillac says. “Girls internalize the images they see in the media, which tell them their value is tied to their looks, not what they say and do. Now social media amplifies those images. And because anyone can manipulate photos on social media, some girls start to think everyone except for them can achieve a certain image.”
Lucas Wolfe agrees that social media could be one factor behind rising youth depression rates. “I do think it’s partially due to social media and screen time and all the pressures associated with those media platforms that cause us to feel as if we need to be perfect,” he says.
He points out that a moment’s bad decision—a message or a picture shared on social media in haste and later regretted —can take on a life of its own. “The Internet lives forever,” he says. “Believing the mistakes we make online are permanent can lead to a sense of doom.”
Definitive proof of depression is hard to spot. And teens do go through normal mood and behavior swings. But in general, here are some warning signs. Without any judgment, have you experienced any of these?
Depression can manifest itself in many ways. Some young people with clinical depression exhibit stereotypical
symptoms of sadness, withdrawal, isolation, and excessive sleep.
In other cases, particularly among children and adolescents, depression can look very different. Young people experiencing depression might become angrier and more irritable. They might show more impulsive behavior—taking more risks and displaying poor judgment. Their behavior at school might change and their grades may drop. Although it’s completely normal for children to “act out” from time to time, parents and friends should watch for sustained changes in someone’s behavior.
Anxiety is another factor that can lead to depression in young people. Taillac says that, “We are seeing more and more anxiety with young people. This is probably the most anxious generation we’ve had in a long time.”
“Treatment for depression works well,” says Don Mordecai, MD, National Leader for Mental Health and Wellness at
Kaiser Permanente. “It works well even for people who have difficult, traumatic childhood experiences. The past
does not dictate the future.”
Mordecai encourages anyone who has serious concerns about the mental health of a friend, child, or other loved one to get that person to a mental health professional for a full assessment. Treatment recommendations vary depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms. According to Taillac, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very effective for mild or moderate depression, whereas a combination of medication plus CBT may be more helpful for people who are severely depressed.
“The facts tell us that less than half of people with mental health conditions get any treatment at all,” says Mordecai. “The real opportunity is for people to get some care. That’s where the biggest impact can be made.”
When Wolfe hit bottom—when he couldn’t eat or sleep and thought about ending his life—he remembered something
his parents had taught him.
You are never powerless. You always have a choice.
“Remembering this wisdom from my parents, that’s what empowered me to make the choice to get help,” Wolfe says. “I would encourage parents to let their children know that there is always hope, that they always have a choice. No matter how far gone they feel, there is always a way back.”
For Wolfe, that way back started with reaching out to his parents and telling them he needed help. They found him a good physician who explained that someone does not have to be traumatized to suffer depression. “My doctor explained the science of depression to me—that it is a treatable illness caused by chemical imbalances,” Wolfe says. “He helped me come to terms with the fact that depression is separate from me. It does not have to be part of who I am. Once I realized that, I could start taking steps to get better.”
With treatment, Wolfe has made great strides. It’s now been two years since he had any bouts of depression. He
still checks in regularly with his doctor and a therapist, but depression is no longer a defining feature in his
Today, Wolfe partners with a nonprofit organization to give talks in schools around southeastern Pennsylvania on his experiences dealing with and overcoming depression.
“I’m doing these talks in part because I wish I’d heard these messages myself when I was in high school,” Wolfe says. “I wish I could go back and talk to my 16-year-old self, to tell myself that I was not just imagining these bad feelings, that there was help out there and it was okay to ask for it.”
A good first step is talking to your kids (or your parents), school counselors, and a doctor or pediatrician.