Depression amongst teens

The experience of teenagers has changed considerably over the last 30-40 years, including a significant increase in the rate of anxiety, depression and behaviour problems according to new research from the Nuffield Foundation. In addition to increased levels of depression amongst teens and depression, today’s teenagers are more likely to be in education and less likely to be in paid employment than their counterparts in the 70s and 80s, leading to a longer and less structured period of adolescence. Family life for teenagers has also changed. These findings are from the Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Adolescence Programme and are published today by Policy Press in a new book, Changing Adolescence: Social trends and mental health, which explores how social change has affected young people’s behaviour, mental health and transitions toward adulthood.

16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, from 1 in 30 to 2 in 30 for boys and 1 in 10 to 2 in ten for girls. 7 per cent in 1974, to approximately 15 per cent in 1999. There is evidence that these increases have levelled in more recent years. For example, there was no rise in symptoms of emotional problems between 1999 and 2004. The youth labour market has collapsed in recent decades. In the mid 1980s, over 40 per cent of 16-19 year olds were in full time employment. By 2007, this figure was less than 20 per cent.

Data from the DfE for 2009 show 69 per cent of 16-18 year olds in full-time education, compared to 32 per cent in 1985. This increase is largely accounted for by greater numbers of young people from lower and middle socio-economic groups staying on. The number on A level courses has increased since the 1970s from 18 per cent to over 40 per cent. The numbers on vocational courses have also increased, although many of these courses are part-time or less structured than the A level track. Trends in the consumption of drugs and alcohol have fluctuated since the 1980s, and overall average levels have decreased slightly in recent years. But the absolute level of alcohol consumption amongst 11-15 year olds is higher in the UK than most other countries.

For example, 25 per cent of teenagers in the UK report drinking by age 13 or younger, whereas in other European countries this figure ranged from 10-19 per cent. Underage drinking in the UK is characterised by early onset, high volume of intake and more binge drinking, factors which play an important role in determining whether substance use is likely to become problematic. Around 20 per cent of all children will have experienced divorce by the age of 16 years, compared to around 10 per cent in the mid 1970s. There is some evidence that about 15-30 per cent of the change in emotional and behavioural problems could possibly be linked to the change in family structure, but the majority of the change has to be explained by other causes. Parents and teenagers are choosing to spend more time together than in the 1980s, and today’s parents are more likely to know where their teenage children are and what they are doing than their 1980s equivalents.

There has been an increase in self-reported stress among parents of teenagers between the 1980s and 2000s, affecting single parents and parents on low incomes to a greater extent than other families. For today’s young people, the transition from school to work is no longer a normal experience. Increased participation in post-16 education is generally considered positive, but only if the courses provide genuine skills and training alongside structure and socialisation. There is growing evidence that this is not the case. The shift from work to education over time has lead to a way of life increasingly dominated by individual choices about how to spend time, rather than one denominated by the structure and inter-dependence of the work environment. It also raises the question of whether, in the absence of work, young people are increasingly segregated from older generations.

Parents are increasingly involved in their teenager’s lives for longer as young people live at home and stay in education for longer. Evidence of warmer parenting is positive, but we need to understand why parents themselves are becoming more stressed. For 16-18 year olds in particular, there have been dramatic changes over the last 30 years. They are also more exposed to drugs and alcohol.

Most important are the changes in how they spend their time. Today’s young people are in educational and training environments populated almost entirely by their peers, rather than the more mixed environment of work. There is virtually no youth labour market, and the future for this generation looks very different. While there are important economic implications of this shifting pattern, the Nuffield Foundation research emphasises the social implications. We have seen significant changes to the structure of the average day and to how 16-18 year olds spend their time, and this may have an impact on their well-being. The Nuffield Foundation has published a briefing paper to introduce the main findings from the book.