Dec. 10, 2009 -- Mental illness may be a sign of the times, a new study suggests.
"We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships," said lead researcher Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge said this focus is affecting mental health on a societal level.
The study, which has not yet been officially published, analyzes data on the mental health and personality of over 63,000 high school and college students between 1938 and 2007.
Drawing on self-reports from widely used psychological surveys, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, researchers found that over time, more and more students are reporting symptoms of mental illness.
Eight-five percent of college students today fall above the average mental illness "score" of students in the 1930s and 1940s.
Students today report they feel significantly more isolated, misunderstood, and emotionally sensitive or unstable than in decades past. Teens were also more likely to be narcissistic, have low self-control, and express feelings of worry, sadness, and dissatisfaction with life.
Although self-reported symptoms would not be enough to diagnose mental illness in these populations, the authors suggest that changes in students' responses over time suggest a real change in mental health levels.
'Prozac Nation' Coming True?
The authors are also quick to point out that increases in these symptoms may even be underestimated in recent years because of the increasing number of Americans on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication.
In more recent times, they write, "those answering the survey might have had their mental state stabilized already by drugs."
A study out of Northwestern University released Monday offers further support to this claim: researchers found that patients on the antidepressant drug Paxil experienced changes in personality, such as being more outgoing. As a possible result, they may have been less likely to suffer from psychological problems or relapse into depression.
Could Economic Depression Lead to Personal Depression?
Why are teens having more psychological issues with each passing generation?
One possibility put forth by the researchers is that levels of mental illness increase when the economy goes south. However, given that the economy has fluctuated considerably since the 1940s but this trend has only showed a steady increase, researchers say this is unlikely.
It is also possible that students today are more willing to admit to having psychological problems than generations past because of increasing awareness and acceptance of mental health issues.
But according to Twenge, the MMPI controls for this "socially desirable responding." The data do not suggest that the extent to which respondents adjust their responses to give the "right" impression has changed over time.
The most likely culprit, the authors write, is that changes in our cultural values are behind teens feeling more anxious, depressed, isolated, and stressed-out.
Materialism at the Core
"When you talk about generational change -- as this study does -- it's really about changes in the culture," Twenge said.
The researchers cannot say for sure which societal changes are behind this change, but looking at students' responses concerning things like the importance of money or the value of family and personal relationships, researchers say an increasingly materialistic culture is likely at fault.
"These results suggest that as American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life, the mental health of American youth has suffered," the authors write.
Consumer Culture May Be the Culprit
Experts in psychology and psychiatry agree.
Margit Burmeister, professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Michigan, said it "makes very good sense with what we know of lifestyle changes in the past 50 years" that our consumer culture is affecting mental illness.
She added that "genetic vulnerability [to mental illness] is the other side of the coin that needs to be kept in mind" -- in other words, as our society piles more and more stress onto its citizens, those who are predisposed to crack under the pressure, will.
"The same stress level that energizes one individual may trigger depression in another," Burmeister said.
Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the Health Lifestyle Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that beyond our society's focus on external goals, the stress level among parents in recent times has impacted the type of children we raise.
Children today "lack meaningful, healthy role models," Rabin said.
"They learn from those they love...if role models are short tempered [or] tell children to leave them alone because they are under a lot of stress...there will be an effect on the child's mental health development."
In this way, he said, children learn which aspects of life to make a priority. Relationships take a back seat, and work, success, material gains take precedence.
Treatment for the Modern Mind
So what does this mean for the coming generations?
"Whether this trend has topped out or will continue upward remains to be seen," the authors write, but these results suggest that the demand for mental health services is likely to increase in the coming decades.
And we "might need to re-think preventing and treating depression," Burmeister said.
If increased materialism and decreased community are really to blame -- at least in part -- for this trend, the authors write, then interventions may have to be taken at the societal level.
They add, "knowing which larger social trends... may lead to more [psychological problems] is an important starting point in building a society of people with better mental health."