A new report by the Black Dog Institute has highlighted a shocking increase in depression among adolescent girls.
And although the Black Dog drew on US data, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has figures which are equally worrying.
According to US data, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-17 who reported having a depressive episode more than doubled – from 8.3% in 2008 and 17% in 2020. This was even more pronounced amount adolescent girls.
“Rates of depression in adolescent girls are worryingly high. And they have been climbing for just over 10 years, according to our findings,” says Black Dog Institute psychologist Dr Alexis Whitton, who was the project lead on the report.
“This is problematic because depression in adolescents can have a host of really adverse impacts. It can disrupt schooling, disrupt peer relationships and it interrupts adolescents’ ability to progress through to adulthood. It is a cause for concern.”
The equivalent data for young people is not available in Australia, so the team can’t confirm exact details in Australia, however there are signs that we are not immune.
Cosmos asked the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing to look at data relating to youth suicide. Throughout 2010 to 2020, age-specific suicide rates increased significantly in those aged 18–24 – from 10.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2010 to 16.4 in 2020. However, the rates for those aged 15–17 remaining relatively stable. You can read their full statement below.
“Although we lack year-by-year data on adolescent depression in Australia, there is a similar pattern for rates of hospitalisation due to intentional self-harm – which can be an indirect indicator of depression,” the Black Dog Institute team write in their report.
“Adolescents themselves recognise the rising burden of mental health conditions, describing mental health as being among their top concerns over the last decade.”
Mental health issues are even more of an issue among minority groups. First Nations youth experience suicide at much higher rates than the general population, while international students have a higher prevalence of mental health issues, yet lower rates of mental health consultations.
LGBTQIA+ youth are also at risk. In the Future Proofing Study – which includes 134 schools around Australia over a five year period – the team found that depression was rife. A staggering 44% of teens who were sexuality diverse, and 60% of those who were gender diverse, had clinically significant symptoms of depression.
“This is incredibly high,” says Whitton. “This is another population that we think are simply not getting access to the mental health care that they need.”
Of course, the important next step is finding out why this is happening, which the report looked into as well.
The team found that although more screen time correlated with how likely they were to experience depression, it was not as simple as it first appears.
“Our analyses show that none of the likely factors (such as negative self-evaluation from social media, cyber bullying, or disturbed sleep) explain this. This suggests that this relationship is probably quite complex, and much more complex than we thought,” says Whitton.
“We know that things like employment precarity and financial strain are big issues, as are things like loneliness. There’s a whole host of issues that are driving this, but we really need better data on the mental health of young people to be able to understand how we can develop solutions.”
A paper out of the MIT Management Sloan School recently tried to link social media with depression.
“There may be hundreds of papers that present correlations between social media and well-being, and many of them are great and highly informative, but we still know little about which way the effect runs,” said Alexey Makarin, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan.
“There is a lack of true causal evidence.”
The study is to be published in the American Economic Review, ad found that as Facebook’s original staggered rollout over US colleges occurred, this led to a 7% increase in severe depression among students and researchers. It’s important to note that this data was from before 2006, so we can’t extrapolate the results to today’s youth.
Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to how to help turn these numbers around.
The Black Dog Institute’s Dr Alex Whitton explains that while young people are reliant on many people throughout their lives for support, those support networks – such as parents and teachers – often have conflicting information about the best solutions.
“What they’re often faced with is very conflicting information about how to support young people with things like screen time, online behaviour, rising academic pressure, social isolation,” she says.
There’s also a dearth of information on nationally representative data on young people’s mental health, as well as the factors relating to depression.
“That makes it really hard for the government and researchers to come up with evidence-based guidelines and programmes that teachers and schools can choose from, and that parents can follow in order to help their young person cope with mental health difficulties,” Whitton concludes.
The report has not been peer reviewed, but is an important step forward in understanding youth mental health in Australia.
AIHW Statement in Full:
The AIHW does not collate data or research on social media and suicide rates however, we do have data on suicide rates by age group since 1907, Deaths by suicide over time – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au) and the trend over time since 2010 Suicide among young people – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au).
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15–24. The proportion of deaths by suicide is relatively high among young people due to the fact these age groups do not tend to die from other causes.
Throughout 2010 to 2020, age-specific suicide rates:
- were higher for young adults (aged 18–24) than adolescents (aged 15–17) and children (aged 14 and below)
- increased in young people aged 18–24 (from 10.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2010 to 16.4 in 2020) while remaining relatively stable for those aged 15–17 (7.9 to 8.3 deaths per 100,000 population)