Teenage BoyResearchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on January 11, 2017, detailing our country’s progress in twenty-six public health categories. The report is based on an initiative called Healthy People 2020, which is comprised of ten-year national health goals set in 2010. Healthy People 2020 calls for improvement in a wide array of areas including, but not limited to, quality of the environment, health care services, and mental health.

The good news is we’ve made progress in many important areas. Since the initiative began, fewer teens are smoking cigarettes, and more people are exercising. The national rates of infant death and preterm birth have both declined.

While we’ve made progress in some areas, others, such as obesity rates in adults and children, have remained stagnant.

And finally, there are three areas in which we have regressed. One is oral health and the other two — you guessed it — are in the mental health category. According to the report, the suicide rate has increased from 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people (in 2007) to 12.6 suicides per 100,000 people (in 2013). In addition, the depression rate in teenagers has increased from 8.3 percent (in 2008) to 10.7 percent (in 2013).

A significant increase in teen depression as well as an increase in the suicide rate. What’s going on with us?

One possible reason for the increase in the depression rate might actually be a good thing. Greater awareness of mental health issues, specifically depression, might help parents, doctors, teachers, and teens themselves recognize the symptoms and then hopefully seek help. In other words, maybe the rate of depression isn’t actually higher than in the past, it is just being recognized and acknowledged more.

But is that the whole story? I think it would be naïve to believe that. There are so many other factors that might be contributing to this rise in mental health issues.

Drug use, both legal and illegal, can certainly come into play when talking about teen depression and suicide in general. The over-prescribing and misuse of prescription medications such as opioids has become rampant and illegal drug use — heroin for example — is alive and well. Ironically, anti-depressants and antipsychotics are both known to sometimes cause depression and/or suicidal thoughts in children, teens, and young adults.

Another possible explanation for the increase in suicide and teen depression is one we hear over and over: We put too much pressure on our young people. We force them to grow up too quickly. Pressure. Stress. Anxiety. There is no escaping. Stressors might be related to academics, peer pressure, family issues, and more.

Agreed. I wholeheartedly believe our children should be playing (with no screens involved) instead of attending one scheduled enrichment classes after another. They shouldn’t be dealing with hours of homework every night or worrying about getting into the best college possible before they even hit middle school.

But still. Why are so many more teens and young adults struggling with depression than during the Great Depression? Surely there was an abundance of stressors during that time.

What’s going on?

I don’t really know, but I can’t help thinking that our lack of community and connection to each other is a critical factor here. We have learned to focus on the wrong things. Our families are dysfunctional – our world is dysfunctional – and we are paying the price.

How many of us have heard stories of young people (or maybe not so young people) who were able to turn their lives around because one person took an interest in them (the movie The Blind Side comes to mind). Someone to listen to you. Someone to care. Sometimes that is all it takes.

I believe we need to strengthen our communities and our connections to one another. Not virtually, but in real life. We need to care and we need to be there for one another, in any way we can.

I think we should take this backward slide as a warning — a sign that we are not going down the right path. We are forgetting what matters most and it is taking its toll. I can’t help thinking of the recent Women’s Marches that were held around the country. Friends who attended them felt buoyed by them and I repeatedly heard comments such as, “I felt so much better and not so alone,” “It was great to be part of a community,” “I feel renewed and ready to advocate some more.”

While these people didn’t necessarily start out depressed, they felt the power of community — of being with others who cared. I think we all need to find ways to get back to the basics — caring, supporting, and nurturing not only ourselves, but our loved ones, our friends, and our neighbors. Depression and suicide are typically illnesses of loneliness. Let’s reverse this backward trend by changing our priorities and how we live our lives. We owe it to ourselves, our families and our communities.