In the past 50 to 70 years, there have been constant raising of the anxiety rates among young Americans. Nowadays, the number of high school and college students with an anxiety disorder or major depression diagnosis has increased 5 to 8 times than half a century ago. There haven’t been any changes in the diagnostic criteria since then, so the raised psychopathology isn’t a result of the criteria and measures.
A study by Jean Twenge from San Diego State University, used the MMPI questionnaire (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) given to assess different mental disorders to U.S college students in 1938, and the version of the same questionnaire for younger adolescents to U.S high school students in 1951. According to the results, there has been a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety in young adults, adolescents, and children over the last 5 or more decades.
History should be seen as a progress, but it seems we have been going backwards at least since the 50’s when it comes to the progress of the happiness and mental health of young people. But why does this happen?
As it turns out, the increased psychopathology in youth isn’t related to the way the world actually is, but to the way they view the world, since during the World War II, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the turbulent 60s and 70s, the rates of depression and anxiety of children and adolescents were far lower than they are now.
Fall in the Youth’s Sense of Personal Control over Their Fate
A known fact about depression and anxiety is that they are related to a person’s sense of control over his/her own life. Those who think they are victims of some situations that they can’t control are more likely to become depressed or anxious. But if you think about it, over the last few decades, there has been a real progress in terms of prevention and treatment of diseases, as well as the prejudices that limited the options of people due to their gender, race, and sexual orientation. Moreover, statistics show that nowadays, the average person is wealthier than before, so why does the data show that the young people in the last several decades think they have less control over their own lives.
The Internal-External Locus of Control Scale is a questionnaire developed in the late 50s by Julien Rotter, for assessment of the sense of control. It contains 23 pairs of statements, in the way that a person chooses which statement of the two is more true. One statement in the pair represents belief in the control by situations outside of the person (External Locus of control), and the other represents control by the person (Internal Locus of control). Here’s one pair as an example:
- My prior experience has shown me that what has to happen will happen
- I have realized that when I decide to take a definite course of action it turns out much better for me than when I trust to fate
The first statement is an example of External locus of control and the second of an Internal locus of control.
According to lot of studies, people who usually choose the external locus of control are more likely to become depressed and anxious, as oppose to those who choose the internal locus of control-these people have greater chances of taking care of their own health, getting jobs they enjoy and active roles in their communities.
A research by Twenge and her colleagues found that over the 42-year period between the years of 1960 and 2002, kids at the age between 9 and 14 and college students too, have shifted from Internality to Externality on Rotter’s scale in the same linear trend as the increasing of anxiety and depression.
It’s logically to think that the decline of Internality and increase in Externality are associated with the rise in depression and anxiety, as when one person thinks that something bad will happen to him/her and s/he won’t be able to prevent it, the sense of helplessness and anxiety lead to depression.
Intrinsic Goals Replaced by Extrinsic Goals
The theory of Twenge is that the generational raise in depression and anxiety is connected to the shift from “intrinsic” goals, focused on a one’s own development as a person, to “extrinsic” goals, focused on the status, high income, and good looks. He cites a proof that nowadays’ youth is more extrinsic goals-oriented, than the youth in the 60s and 70s. A good example of this are the statements of college freshmen students saying that being rich is more important than developing a meaningful philosophy of life, contrary on the students in the 60s and 70s.
You can see the connection between the shift toward the External locus of control and the shift toward the extrinsic goals.
According to Twenge, the shift toward extrinsic goals means a shift toward a generation of materialism imposed by the media and advertisements which imply that the good looks, material goods, and popularity are the main factors for happiness. But others believe that the generational increases in anxiety, depression, extrinsic goals, and Externality result from the decline in the time for free play and increase in the weight and time given to schooling.
How the Decrease of Free Play May Be the Cause of a Rise in Anxiety and Depression, and a Decrease in Sense of Control and in Intrinsic Goals
In the past few decades, the children’s freedom and opportunities to play and explore without direct direction and guidance from adults have been drastically decreased. Throughout the history, children have been learning to control their own lives, solve their problems, and develop their own interests through free play and exploration. If you think about it, play is an activity directed and controlled by the players, and it’s directed towards intrinsic goals.
If we deprive children of opportunities to play free on their own without our direct control and supervision, we actually deprive them of chances to realize how to take control of their own lives. So instead of protecting them, we will diminish their sense of self-control, and joy, while increasing their chances of developing an anxiety or depression.
How Coercive Schooling Promotes Anxiety and Depression, by Depriving Youth of Personal Control and Directing Them toward Extrinsic Goals
As the free play has reduced, the school activities, and school-like ones such as adult-directed sports, and lessons out of school, have been constantly rising. In that way, nowadays children spend so much more hours, days, and years of their life in school and in studying then ever before. There has more weight given to grades and tests as well. Even outside of school, most of their time is spent on situations in which they are controlled, protected, directed, judged, ranked, and rewarded by adults.
What children learn in schools is that the teacher’s judgements of competence and choices of activities are the ones that matters, and not theirs. A student can learn a lot and still get a low grade, since s/he didn’t succeed to find out what precisely the teacher thinks should be learned, or to answer correctly on the questions asked by the teacher. Nowadays, the goal of most students at least up to the level of graduate school is a good grade, and not a competence, and this isn’t their fault, but ours. Every passing year there has been more intense educational system with constant testing and evaluation, which clearly replaces the intrinsic goals to extrinsic. This system is almost designed to create depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, children don’t have the chances to choose their classmates, and they must spend most of their day with children that they might not get along with. On the contrary, in free play they can avoid children who harass or bully them and choose other friends that they can associate with. So children have no choices than to face those bullies every single day, and sometimes the outcome can be disastrous.
A study by Jeremy Hunter and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi involved students from public schools from 6th to 12th grade to test their happiness and unhappiness. They had to fil out a questionnaire every time the signal on their wristwatch went off, to say what they are doing, where they are, and how happy/unhappy the feel at that specific moment.
Not surprisingly, their levels of happiness were at lowest when at school, in the middle when with parents, and highest when outside of school playing or talking with friends. During the weekends their happiness increased, but starting from Sunday noon up to the evening their level of happiness plummeted as a result of the anticipation of the next school week.
It’s time to re-think the educational system, as we see that spending most of the time in setting and places where children least want to be affects their happiness and mental health.
The overall message of this post is to give young people opportunities and freedom, without oppression, to educate themselves in their unique joyful way, to develop emotional well-being, personal self-control, and intrinsic values.