A recent Pediatrics study revealed nearly 10 percent of young adults have experienced a major depressive episode. Further evidence suggests that a growing number of adolescents and young adults aren’t being treated for their mental health needs.
A major depressive episode is an event when a person experiences symptoms of depression, such as a feeling of loneliness, anxiety or a loss of interest in activities, for at least two weeks. The prevalence of a major depressive episode in adolescents, which includes people between the ages of 12 and 17, increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014, according to a November 2016 study published in Pediatrics. For young adults, which include people between the ages of 18 and 25, the prevalence increased from 8.8 percent to 9.6 percent from 2005 to 2014, respectively.
At the same time, an increased percentage of psychiatrists across the United States are retiring. This trend, coupled with need for mental health support reaching historic heights, means that wait times to see a psychiatrist or another mental health practitioner also increased – preventing people from getting treatment for days or weeks. And a report by STAT News found dozens of universities are unable to meet the mental health needs of students.
Tech, school, stress and other factors contributing to depression
The added pressure and stress of being a student can affect a young adult’s mental health. But researchers are also discovering technology may play a role in increasing depression rates among young adults.
Millennials are typically known as the most connected, or wired, generation. Growing up during a time when technology was evolving at a rapid pace, millennials are frequent users of computers, smartphones and social media. Unlike the Baby Boomer generation, millennials are more likely to text and search for information on smartphones, Gabriela Cora, M.D., D.F.A.P.A., a medical director for Aetna Behavior Health, said.
In fact, 89 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 34 used social media of any kind in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. The survey also found 45 percent of older Baby Boomers, who are between the ages of 60 to 69, used social media.
Recent studies have found people using numerous social media platforms are more susceptible to being depressed or anxious. In a December 2016 study by the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, researchers found people who used seven to 11 social media platforms had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than those who used two or less platforms.
The researchers believe various factors could contribute to the increase risk of depression and anxiety. For example, the difficulty navigating the different social media platforms can cause negative mood and emotions. The researchers added a person’s can repeatedly embarrass themselves if a “social media faux pas” was made.
Being “super-connected” can be a double-edged sword, Cora said.
“There’s an explosion of information with social media and technology,” Cora said, “but the problem with that is there’s a difficulty curating the validity of the amount of information. There’s also a challenge of interpreting what is relevant. At the same time, millennials may be comparing themselves to someone they perceive as being more popular or more successful and there may be some frustration.”
Technological advances can increase access
While technology can be a stressor, technology – and specifically telemedicine – has opened the doors for more people to meet with a health professional. The technology, which continues to evolve, allows a person to use a computer, tablet or smartphone to communicate remotely with a doctor.
Being able to communicate remotely, Cora said, means a patient may not have to wait days or weeks to talk with a psychiatrist or reach a therapist. In addition to increasing access, telepsychiatry provides patients with comfort by being at ease or more relaxed while using a familiar form of communication and a tool they can use when they want or when they need care.
More accepting of their mental health
Mental health stigma still exists and reluctance to address the topic can delay treatment for up to a year. Compared to Baby Boomers, Cora said millennials are more open to accepting and talking about their emotions and mental health.
“What I’ve seen in the millennial group is that many people are quite open and compassionate about mental health issues,” Cora said.
Despite being more open to talking about their mental health, Cora said millennials may not receive the treatment they need because the health care system lags technological advances.
Their access to care and to the appropriate practitioner will be key to determine their diagnosis and proper treatment, Cora said.
“The whole system provides for services in a siloed way,” Cora said. “Young adults need to navigate the system and figure out what to do next. It’s not always easy.”
Preparation can help
Parents can help their child prepare for a smooth transition to college by making sure there is a good support network for the student, Cora said, particularly if they have previously used health care services for chronic conditions or mental health treatment for anxiety and depression.
“The perception is that they’ll be fine because they’re in college now, but that’s when things fall out of place because there’s less structure,” she said. “The school may not have enough psychiatrists or therapists on board and there may not be enough in the community around the school either. Now you have sudden gaps that affects the continuity of care and the young adult doesn’t know what to do.”
In settings where there are mental health professionals, “the coordination of services is key for access and continuity of services,” Cora added.
A good network doesn’t just include psychiatrists in the area, but also support groups. Support groups may be available at the school, in the community or even online The virtual support group may be a favored option among the younger generation, Cora said. Some may be already actively participating in chatrooms or virtual group settings with or without a formal moderator.
Whether it’s an in-person or virtual support group, being able to talk to others that are going through the same struggles can help put things in perspective and feel like they’re not alone, Cora said.
“When they’re talking with other people, they can start to understand that there are other people out there that are going through the similar challenges. Their situation may be different, but they may share thoughts, feelings and experiences. They start to realize they’re not alone,” she said. “It gives them a sense of inclusion.”
For students and millennials in the work force, Cora advised being proactive.
“Ask about the health services in place at the school or what resources are available to employees if they need it,” she said.
Advice for patients
Mental health problems affect millions of people in the world. The problems may resolve, stay the same or become worse, resulting in experiencing less joy, isolating from loved ones, decreasing performance in school or at work or being absent from school or work.
“Untreated mental health issues, just like untreated physical health issues, affects our overall sense of joy and quality of life,” Cora explained.
Whether you’ve been seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or another type of mental health professional or it’s your first visit, bring a list of issues that concern you and try to be open. You can read more tips here.
“Prioritize the top three challenges that keep you awake at night. Although it may be tough to open up to a stranger at first, mental health professionals are trained to make the process as smooth as possible,” Cora said.
“The more you are able to open up about your worries, the more a qualified professional may be able to help you on your path to health and wellness.”