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Increasing Rates of Mental/Emotional Disorder

It’s most common to hear discussion about the sheer incidence of prevalence of mental/emotional problems over time. Less attention is typically given to how those rates are changing over time. There is concerning evidence that these rates have significantly increased over the last two decades.

In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago… the average age at which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5… Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”

In 2000, Jean Twenge at San Diego State University documented a striking increase in rates of anxiety in children over a period of decades.  In the first study, anxiety scores from 170 samples of American college students (representing 40,192 students) were analyzed from research conducted between 1952 to 1993. The second study looked at anxiety scores during the same years in 99 samples of children (representing 12,056 children, ages 9 – 17). Both studies show a significantly large increase in anxiety levels.

In a 2009 paper in Clinical Psychology Review led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, they studied MMPI questions that include mental health symptoms from 1940’s till today and found that there’s a clear increase in symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

In 2011, Marcia Angell, an American physician who served as editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, summarizes: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”

In 2012, the Nuffield Foundation published new data in its report Changing Adolescence: Social trends and mental health indicating that the proportion of 15/16 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. In addition, the proportion of 15/16 year olds with behaviour problems (as rated by parents) also increased, from approximately 7 per cent in 1974, to approximately 15 per cent in 1999.

The CDC, in a 2013 report entitled “Suicide Among Adults Aged 35–64 Years” indicated that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010).

That same month, the CDC reported in Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2005–2011, the following: “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.”

A 2014 review of 19 studies from 12 countries across Europe, China, the United States and Australia, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, found that in the majority of countries, teenage boys and girls are experiencing more depression and anxiety than they were a decade ago, and the girls “have almost double the anxieties and worries” as boys.