Lessons for the rest from depression in the West

Appearances can be deceptive, and this is especially true for children and young adults.

Lessons for the rest from depression in the West

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Appearances can be deceptive, and this is especially true for children and young adults. The widely held perception regarding the lives of children and adolescents in some of the richest countries is that theirs is a life of enjoyment and fun. So it will appear shocking to many people to know that several organizations of health professionals in the USA have stated that the current state of the mental health of children and youth should be treated as a national emergency.

In a meeting of its House of Delegates in mid-2023, the American Medical Association (AMA), adopted a policy recognizing that children’s mental health and barriers to care in the US represented a national emergency. The AMA noted that one in five children experienced a mental disorder each year. Earlier the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association had called for the declaration of a youth/adolescent/child mental health emergency. If one of two high school girls feel persistently sad or hopeless and one of six students plan suicide in a year, isn’t it time to look inwards at what has gone wrong so that as a first step, the causes of such a dismal state of affairs can be identified correctly? After all, effective remedial action depends first on a proper identification of causes.

This is all the more necessary in a situation when, as official data for 2019 for the USA tells us, in addition there is an incredibly high rate of increase of these problems. According to the data of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Survey and Trends Report released by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, USA (data which was also quoted by the USA Surgeon General in the advisory issued by him in 2021), in 2019, 37 per cent of all high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.


What is more, within a decade (2009-2019), this had recorded a 40 per cent increase. Why is sadness and hopelessness so widely pervasive in one of the richest countries with relatively high educational and health spending? At the same time, this data base has revealed that one six students reported making a suicide plan in 2019. Again, there was a high increase in this tendency in the previous decade 2009-2019, an increase of 44 per cent.

According to the Advisory on Mental Health issued by the US Surgeon General in 2021, there was a high rise in the suicide rate in the agegroup 10-24 from 2007 to 2018, of 57 per cent. In 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death in this age-group. This mental health crisis among children and young adults can be seen in many other affluent countries as well. In Europe as in the USA, suicide is the second highest cause of death in the age-group 7-24 years.

According to the UNICEF annual report for 2021, 19 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls are affected by mental health disorders, 35 per cent start drinking alcohol by the age 15. Only 41 per cent of boys and 33 per cent of girls are mentally healthy. The US Surgeon General has stated, “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide – and rates have increased over the past decade.”

While the data is comprehensive, credible explanations have not yet emerged regarding why in some of the richest countries enjoying very special privileges, children and adolescents are in such an extreme stage of sadness and hopelessness. Children and adolescents live for the most part in a world that others, the adult members of society, have built for them. They are much more the victims of serious distortions and ills of the world created by adults.

The fact that the adults also suffer from high rates of mental health problems complicates the situation further. To give just an example of the world given to children and adolescents, the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, USA, has collected the following countrywide data from various official sources: About one half of children under the age of 18 are reported to be victims of various forms of abuse and nearly half are victims of child sexual abuse, even though most such cases go unreported.

Every hour 58 girls and 40 boys become victims of child sexual abuse. Ninety per cent of victims know, trust and love the perpetrators of abuse, which makes the abuse all the more traumatic. Twenty per cent of victims of abuse are under the age of eight. One in 3 children get exposed to unwanted sexual material, one in seven internet users are solicited sexually, 60 per cent of pregnant teens are victims of sexual abuse and 100,000 children and adolescents enter prostitution annually.

Nearly 800,000 children go missing every year, or 2000 every day. 3.3 million children see violence in their home every year. Five children are reported to die every day due to child abuse, although such fatalities are under-reported. As for the impact of all this on mental health, data says that about 80 per cent of 21-year olds who suffered from child abuse report at least one psychological disorder while 60 per cent of those in drug rehabilitation centers say they suffered abuse as children.

According to another report of American Counseling Association, among child and adolescent victims of child abuse, there is 42 per cent increase of possibility of suicidal thoughts during adolescence. As children study the world in which they are growing up, they find that climate change, other serious environmental problems and weapons of mass destruction have made their own future extremely risky and in the emerging world they appear to be increasingly helpless in changing these life-threatening conditions. There appears to be increasing scarcity of the kind of leadership roles that can inspire them to take up such challenges, and in fact some of the established leaders appear to be going in a reverse direction.

Perhaps a combination of these and other factors has caused the existing mental health crisis. There should be courage to face up to the real causes. Meanwhile, the larger implications of this crisis should also be noted as some of these rich countries provide a disproportionately high share of important leadership roles at world level. In addition, developing countries need to learn from this experience and realize that serious social problems can persist even amidst economic prosperity. Any preoccupation with economic gains at the cost of neglecting social harmony can prove extremely costly.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071.)