Depression may be on the rise among younger millennials even as typical risk factors such as substance use and antisocial behavior fall, a new study in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests.
Researchers looked at two groups of millennials in the United Kingdom, one born between 1991 and 1992 and a second born between 2000 and 2002.
The researchers said they found that overall symptoms of both depression and self-harm had increased by age 14 in the younger cohort compared to the older one.
Symptoms of depression increased from 9 percent to almost 15 percent between 2005 and 2015 — the years of each group’s respective check-in — while reported self-harm increased from almost 12 percent to more than 14 percent.
What’s more, the younger millennials reported lower overall risk factors such as smoking (3 percent compared to 9 percent) and drinking alcohol (43 percent versus 52 percent), as well as fewer anti-social behaviors (28 percent versus 40 percent).
While this newest research came from the United Kingdom, similar findings have been made in the United States.
For instance, a 2018 report from Blue Cross Blue Shield found that diagnoses of major depression had risen 47 percent for millennials in 2013.
Defining the age range of the millennial generation is fuzzy.
The U.S. Census Bureau has used the year 2000 as a cutoff birth year while the Pew Research Center sets it back to 1996.
But whether the younger group in the U.K. study represents the limit of the millennial generation or the beginning of Generation Z, the results are clear: The kids are depressed and it’s not clear why.
The study did find younger millennials slept fewer than eight hours per night (11 percent versus 6 percent) and had higher body mass index (BMI) scores than their older counterparts (7 percent scored as obese compared to 4 percent in the older cohort).
But the researchers cautioned against drawing any single conclusion from this data.
Instead, these results, “suggest relationships between these factors might be more complex and dynamic in nature than currently understood,” the study authors wrote.
Many experts interviewed by Healthline singled out social media as a potential vector for this increase in depressive symptoms.
“Millennials were the first generation to grow up with the constant flow of information from the internet and social media [and] they are being bombarded with details about the personal and professionals lives of others,” said Jessica Singh, a mental health therapist and founder of Transcendence Counseling Center, LLC in Vero Beach, Florida.
“Millennials can’t help but compare their situations and achievements to everyone else’s, which can leave them feeling insecure and unaccomplished,” Singh told Healthline.
As a result, “Millennials are feeling the pressure to always look and act like they have it all together. This can easily result in lowered self-esteem, anxiety, or depression,” she said.
This tracks with previous studies that have indicated social media use may increase depression and loneliness.
Then there’s the reality that social media interactions are simply less real, substantive, and protective than ones in real life, said Kathryn Moore, PhD, a psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
“I see many young adults who say they are social, but their social interactions consist of talking with people online while playing a video game for hours,” she told Healthline. “These types of social interactions aren’t allowing for true sharing, connectedness, or feeling known.”
Several other experts also singled out debt and the economy as a potential risk factor in millennial depression rates.
“Rates of depression among millennials are naturally increasing because of the economic reality of increasing student loan debt, decrease of job stability, the rent economy, and decrease in positive social supports due to moving globally for job security,” said Monica White, a relationship therapist in New York and Massachusetts.
Dr. Michael DeMarco, a counselor in New York, agreed.
“The internet didn’t actually give us meaning,” he told Healthline. “App culture has us feeling more alone and isolated than ever before. Massive student loan debt, and the likelihood of financial freedom and owning a home and paying off that student loan debt [are] not likely.”
“Consider the state of the world in the time these folks have been on the planet.”
There is one positive quality millennials seem to have, which might also explain some of the increase in depressive symptoms — a willingness to seek treatment.
“Public stigma surrounding depression is decreasing among millennials and younger generations are reaching out to their healthcare providers, getting diagnosed and hopefully treated,” said Dr. Vincent Nelson, vice president of medical affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
That said, 1 in 5 millennials still do not seek treatment, he told Healthline.
“Some of the warning signs experienced when suffering from depression may include changes in sleep (interrupted sleep or sleeping too much), changes in eating patterns (eating too much or too little), changes in performance at school or work, increased isolation, changes in mood such as sadness and irritability, loss of interest or pleasure in things once enjoyed, fatigue, restlessness, decreased ability to concentrate/focus,” said Geny Zapata, PsyD, a health psychologist and director of behavioral sciences at Adventist Health White Memorial family medicine residency program in Los Angeles.
Here are a few of the tips she gave for millennials to better safeguard their mental health:
- Seek the help of a medical professional.
- Seek mental health services such as individual psychotherapy or joining a support group.
- Reduce isolation: Reach out and communicate with friends and family you trust.
- Practice doing activities and things that you used to enjoy (read a book, take a walk, talk to friends, go out for tea, take a class, go to the movies).
- If you are spiritual or religious, seek support from your spiritual or religious community.
- Focus on improving your sleep, nutrition, and physical health.
“Most of all please be patient with yourself,” Zapata said “The symptoms of depression came with time and they will need time to be worked through. With professional assistance, your patience, and your effort it does get better and your quality of life will improve.”
If you are having recurring thoughts of death or self-harm, please seek immediate assistance by calling 911 or your local emergency services. You can also contact the Suicide Prevention Crisis Hotline to speak to someone immediately at 1-800-273-8255.