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Why Do Youth Have More Mental Health Issues?

News out today suggests that, based upon responses to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), youth today have more mental health issues than those who took the test in 1938. Here’s the summary:

Pulling together the data for the study was no small task. Led by Twenge, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.

Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938.

It’s no wonder that a test developed 70 years ago may not accurately capture the norms of society today — that’s the main concern with this data. The MMPI was developed from patients diagnosed in the 1930s for what were considered the diagnostic criteria for disorders at that time. As you can imagine, our understanding of mental health and mental disorders has changed over time (and indeed, the MMPI has been superceded by the better-normed MMPI-2). Indeed, the very definitions have changed over the decades.

So while you can say something about this data, I’m not sure you can draw too many specific conclusions about the findings because of the enormous changes the field has undergone in that time. If mental disorders were like diagnosing a broken arm, we could read something into this data. But they’re not like most medical diagnoses — they are subjective and are updated every decade or two (as the recent DSM-V controversy has reminded us).

Twenge [the study’s lead author] previously documented the influence of pop culture pressures on young people’s mental health in her 2006 book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Several studies also have captured the growing interest in being rich, with 77 percent of those questioned for UCLA’s 2008 national survey of college freshmen saying it was “essential” or “very important” to be financially well off.

Experts say such high expectations are a recipe for disappointment. Meanwhile, they also note some well-meaning but overprotective parents have left their children with few real-world coping skills, whether that means doing their own budget or confronting professors on their own.

“If you don’t have these skills, then it’s very normal to become anxious,” says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City who hopes the new study will be a wake-up call to those parents.

Students themselves point to everything from pressure to succeed – self-imposed and otherwise – to a fast-paced world that’s only sped up by the technology they love so much.

But it can’t be the world we live in today that’s the cause for this increase in problems. Can you imagine a much worse world than in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression and the start of WWII? How could a young adult today — with the Internet, access to virtually any information at one’s fingertips, hundreds of virtual ‘friends,’ the ability to even attend college in the first place, etc. — have it worse off than a young adult facing that kind of world?

It seems if we’re going to draw conclusions about these scores in a broad sort of way, we have to acknowledge that while indeed the world is seemingly more “fast paced” (although, simply in a different way than in past generations, which have also had to deal with their own versions of the “fast paced” argument), it’s not a subjectively more difficult or harder life than what one may have experienced in 1938.

What has changed significantly (and changes significantly with virtually every new generation) is how children are raised.

And that, I think, would be an interesting subject to investigate and research further. Are children growing up less resilient than in generations past? Do they have fewer or less effective coping skills? Or are they just more in touch with their inner thoughts and feelings — the kinds of things the MMPI test taps into?

Why Do Youth Have More Mental Health Issues?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Why Do Youth Have More Mental Health Issues?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jan 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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