Depression has become an epidemic – what’s going on?

“Depression is now the most common ­serious medical or mental health disorder in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide,” says Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, Director of the Medical Ethics Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, in an article for First Things. He joined A Closer LookTM to discuss why depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide have plagued our nation and what we can do to stop it.

Suicide rates have increased drastically across the country for people of all ages, genders, races, and socio-economic statuses, but especially among young people. The odd thing is, these aren’t necessarily students that were marginalized or bullied, but also high-achieving, athletic and popular teens. What is going on? There are many factors contributing—alcohol and drug use, social media, bullying or family instability—but a lot of it could have to do with pressure to succeed.

“Basically I think what we’re seeing is there is immense pressure being placed by their peers, by their teachers, perhaps by their parents. These expectations that adolescents feel that they must live up to and if somehow they hit a setback or if they feel in their own mind that they’re falling behind, perhaps comparing themselves only to their peers who are also taking a boatload of advanced placement classes … I think that comparison game can put immense stress and pressure on adolescents. They’re not getting enough sleep, they’re not getting enough time to rest,” says Dr. Kheriaty.

“And with the engine redlining 24/7 like that for months on end, some of them, many of them are now reaching a breaking point where their mental health is being affected,” he explains. These students are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, which in turn increases the risk of suicide. “Certainly depression is something that has biological causes and we need to pay attention to those, but our biology has not changed in the last 20 years. So something on the society level, something in culture or family life is also contributing in terms of the rising rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide, and those are things that it’s very important for us to attend to.”

teen in hoodie uses smartphone

Another factor? Social media. “We have now pretty robust data that, while there can be beneficial ways to use it, for adolescents especially, by and large social media contributes to poor mental health outcomes. And there’s a pretty direct correlation in regards to the time spent on social media and the severity of the poor mental health outcome.”

If it’s such a big problem, why aren’t we hearing about this? “There has been remarkably little attention paid in the media, in terms of public education and public health efforts, and I’m not sure why that is. That may have something to do with the social stigma that still unfortunately surrounds depression and other mental illnesses; that we somehow take them less seriously or are unwilling to speak publicly about them. If this kind of epidemic was occurring with another type of medical disorder, if there was a sudden spike or rise of people dying from, let’s say AIDS, there would be all kinds of media attention looking at … what can be and needs to be done … to save lives.”

What can we do? Dr. Kheriaty recommends that parents set a healthy example for social media use in your household, and limit your children and teens’ screen time and social media use. The next time your kids will be home for a few days on break from school, take away the smartphones and laptops and do something together as a family. Listen and give quality time and attention to your kids and avoid putting constant and unnecessary pressure and stress on them to achieve and succeed. Parents, you aren’t in this alone – reach out to a doctor, therapist, priest, or friend for advice or help if you think you child is at risk.

You can read Dr. Kheriaty’s article, “Dying of Despair”, here.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, or another mental health issue, please reach out to a doctor for help. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

A Closer Look Feb. 1