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Flatten the Mental Health Curve


Jul. 9, 2021 Psychology Today

Picture this: Tenth-grade Laura checks her Instagram after a long school day. And she finds something that is absolutely horrific. Her long-time adversary, Gertrude, has posted a nude photo on her Instagram story. The photo is a bit blurry, but it kind of looks like Laura. And, although it’s actually not Laura in the photo, Gertrude claims that it is and she even tags Laura with some very nasty verbiage. The post goes viral.

Laura’s anxiety level shot through the roof as she stood there alone on her driveway. She had never experienced this level of hurt before and she had no clue whatsoever as to what she was going to do about it. Feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression engulf her. 

The Skyrocketing Nature of Mental Health Issues in Modern Times

In a large-scale study of the prevalence of various mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, it was found that steep increases in each and every such condition were found for adolescents and young adults between the years of 2009 and 2017 (see Twenge et al., 2019). We are talking about increases in major depression, for instance, from 8 percent to more than 13 percent among those in the 12- to 25-year age range across these nine years. This same general trend seems to exist for mental health issues in general. Anyone who works on a college campus will tell you that counseling centers are running beyond capacity across the US. 

Mental health issues are on the rise. And this trend is particularly true among our young people (Twenge et al., 2019).

A year ago, when people talked about flattening the curve, they were referring to the COVID pandemic. I think it is time to revise our usage of this phrase. As we work as a global community to put the COVID pandemic behind us, I say that the phrase flattening the curve be rebranded to refer to the steep increase in the prevalence of mental health issues in the modern world—especially among young people. 

Three Potential Causes of the Problem

Twenge et al. (2019) offer a few suggestions to explain the trends found in their data. Generally, they refer to “birth cohort effects,” suggesting that people born after 1982 have access to digital media and other online resources that have had unintended adverse consequences regarding the mental health of adolescents and young adults today. While this explanation is speculative in nature given the non-experimental quality of the data in their study, I think it’s certainly a perspective that warrants further study. With this said, here are three specific potential causes that I think warrant our deepest consideration.

1. Cyberbullying. 

In line with the analysis presented by Twenge et al. (2019), we can consider cyberbullying as a specific trend that has risen hand-in-hand with rises in communication technologies such as the internet and social media. 

According to data compiled by Comparitech, rates of cyberbullying have increased sharply across the globe over the past decade. Below is a slice of the eye-opening data found in their report:

Between 2011 and 2018, rates of cyberbullying among teens have increased markedly in nearly every nation across the globe. For instance, in the US, rates of teens reporting having been victims of cyberbullying increased from 15 percent in 2011 to 26 percent in 2018. These comparable rates for a few other nations, just to put a global face to the problem, are as follows:

Turkey: 2011, 5 percent; 2018, 20 percent

Mexico: 2011, 8 percent; 2018, 18 percent

UK: 2011, 11 percent; 2018, 18 percent

China: 2011, 11 percent; 2018, 17 percent

2. Increases in industrialization have ironic effects when it comes to mental health.

Generally, we think of technological advancement as a good thing. But I would argue from an evolutionary perspective that any and all technological advancements need to be considered with caution. 

When it comes to large-scale industrialization, people who live in relatively large, industrialized areas are more at-risk for mental health issues than are people who live in relatively small-scale social environments. And this finding seems to be true across the globe (see Srivastava, 2009). As time moves forward, technology and industrialization increase. And adverse mental health outcomes of our young people seem like a fully adverse (if unintended) consequence of this pattern.

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