In summary

In real-life facts, teenagers today report more anxiety and less depression on standard tests, and display less alarming trends than adults.

By Mike Males, Special to CalMatters

Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, mmales@earthlink.net. He formerly taught sociology, psychology and epidemiology at the University of California.

“Nearly half of California adolescents report mental health difficulties,” headlines a UCLA School of Public Health press release publicizing their latest report – one that really shows authorities are failing modern young people with dubious measures that offer diminishing insights.

Alarming reports like these are mired in a dusty past in which medical and mental health authorities brandishing pencil-and-paper tests regularly proclaimed, era after era, that “today’s teenagers” were the most messed-up generation ever to walk the earth. 

In the early 1900s, famed Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman and the popular media branded “child suicide” increases as “appalling” and “staggering.” In the 1930s, experts declared their testing showed half to three-fourths of “Greatest Generation” boys suffered debilitating anxiety and depression. In the 1940s and 1950s, government and popular “documentaries” sensationalized teens, especially girls, as apocalyptically troubled. In the 1980s, then-Sen. Al Gore’s wife Tipper led a prominent crusade against rock and rap music it claimed was driving “epidemic” teen suicide.  In the 1990s, a Carnegie Corporation report pronounced half of younger Generation X teens as “at risk” due to mental and behavioral risks. On and on.

To psychologists of any era, the craziest youth in history are always today’s. San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge claims modern youth are more “disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful and anxious … than ever.” Could it be cellphones? Online bullying? School stresses? Salacious pop media? How about psychologists and counselors themselves? The more psychologists there are, the sicker teenagers seem to get.

In the real-life facts we can grasp, teenagers today report more anxiety and less depression on standard tests and display less alarming trends than adults. Depending on which years interest groups cherry-pick to push their pet theory, California’s rate of suicide and suicide-suspected deaths among teenagers has fallen over the last three years; has risen 27% since 2007; has fallen 32% since 1990; or has fallen 47% since 1970. 

In fact, the generational trends are downward, with teenage rates much lower and falling faster than those of adults of age to be their parents. During the last three decades, as the internet, cellphones, video games and all manner of salacious culture proliferated, California teenagers became less suicidal, though in some years their trend differed from their parents’.

The UCLA report and claims like Twenge’s are really distractions. They fail to incorporate long-term trends, family contexts and larger realities teens themselves face. The UCLA’s test contains “problem inflating” items that classify a teenager as psychologically distressed if he/she feels “nervous,” “fidgety” or “restless” – as a lot of people in their right minds do. However, it contains no measures for uncomfortable issues like histories of family abuse or parents’ addictions and mental health problems that teens grapple with in real life.

Exploiting manufactured teenaged crises can be destructive. In 2007, the American Federation of Teachers schemed to win increased counseling positions not by documenting increasing workload, the normal process, but by concocting an endless series of “campus mental health crises.” Nothing of the sort exists; in fact, the best science showed undergraduate depression falling since the 1980s, suicides rare and campus troubles concentrated in older personnel. Unfortunately, the union campaign convinced lawmakers to boost student fees, even as surveys show students citing rising education costs as a source of anxiety.

Given over $130 billion in California students’ education debt, persistently high rates of poverty, rising drug abuse among parents and a relentless drumbeat of media negativism bashing their generation, a fraction of California teens are justified in feeling “nervous,” “worthless,” “depressed” and “hopeless.” The remedy is not more counseling to fix youths, but shaming their more-troubled elders into improving younger-generation conditions.

In this regard, the UCLA policy brief does feature one positive recommendation: leaders must act to “reduce socioeconomic inequities.” If we fix the troubling conditions a lot of youth grow up with, most young people will fix themselves.

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Mike Males has also written about schemes to revive California’s costly, failed juvenile justice system.

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