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David Baxter PhD

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How the pressure to succeed is creating a generation of unruly, depressed teenagers
September 14, 2004
By Sarah Womack, The Telegraph

The number of 15-year-olds suffering from anxiety and depression has increased by 70 per cent since the mid-1980s, according to a study.

It raises questions about the way children are being raised and the extent to which the pressures of succeeding academically and the prospect of debt are contributing to widespread unhappiness.

Experts say the rise in anxiety levels, and a decline in mental health, cannot be explained by soaring divorce rates because comparable increases were found in all types of family and across social classes.

The study, Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health, to be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in November, reflects increasing concerns of parents and teachers about today's teenagers.

The mental health of teenagers has sharply declined in the past 25 years while the chances of teenagers lying, stealing or being disobedient - rather than being physically aggressive - have more than doubled.

Emotional problems were stable until 1986 when they shot up. Boys were more likely to have behavioural problems than girls, who suffered more from emotional problems.

The research was conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and the University of Manchester and looked at three generations of 15-year-olds, in 1974, 1986 and 1999, based on their parents' assessments.

It does not provide answers but suggests that the transition to secondary school might be becoming more demanding while expectations of academic achievement had risen.

It also points to the imbalance in time spent on school work compared to leisure activities, with many children having few out-of-school pursuits. Family members also spend little time together, while drugs and alcohol are increasingly available to today's adolescents.

Ann Hagell, editor of the Journal of Adolescence, said anticipation of the future was distressing for many teenagers. "Add to that the reduction of employment levels of graduates, and at 15 or 16 there's a real struggle ahead for five years over debt," she said."We have high expectations of independence for our teenagers without giving them the means to achieve that."

John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, said: "The changing nature of the family is central. Teenagers are affected by instability of family life, which causes a lot of difficulty; it muddles up roles and there is not the support for young people as previously."

The Nuffield Foundation, which funded the research, said: "This is not a trend which is being driven by a small number of kids who are getting worse, but a much more widespread malaise.

"Britain has one of the lowest rates of youngsters staying in education past 16 and there is less of an emphasis on vocational education. In the US, 80-85 per cent of kids get a high school diploma. At the same time, high schools have a range of after-school activities. Part of the role of the school is the kind of socialisation that those activities generate."

The findings precede two government initiatives - the Tomlinson report on education for 14- to 19-year-olds and the Green Paper on youth - both of which are intended to respond to mounting concerns about the behaviour of young people.

Previous research has shown that by the age of 28, people with continuing mental health problems have cost society up to 10 times more than those with no problems. A significant proportion will have difficulties in relationships, unstable employment histories, and become involved in crime.
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