I was cruising around on Facebook recently and noticed something different. Usually, I felt inundated by #blessed pics of friends in bikinis looking happier than Oprah eating bread. But not today. There were no pictures of the beach or not-so-humble brags about their latest promotions. The No. 1 status update of the day: depression.
It suddenly seemed like most my friends were suddenly crippled by depression and anxiety. And this wasn’t just Facebook friends, either. Real people in my real life started talking to me about their mental health issues. And honestly, it was happening to me too: I’d just started therapy and was only a few months away from a Zoloft prescription. What had happened? Why does it suddenly seem like so many millennials are dealing with depression?
I’m far from the first person to notice this trend. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., published Generation Me, a book all about the rise of depression and anxiety in millennials, in 2014. According to Twenge, only 1-2 percent of people born before 1915 experienced a major depression during their lives. Now that number’s up to 15-20 percent of the population. A survey comparing students from 1937 to 2007 found that modern students were seven times more likely to be depressed.
And of course, there are all the people who don’t admit to depression. Twenge conducted a survey that compared teenagers from 2010s to the 1980s. The 2010s teens were 38 percent more likely to have trouble remembering things, 78 percent more likely to have sleeping troubles, and twice as likely to have visited a professional about their mental health concerns. That might not sound like much, but trouble remembering, sleeping, and seeking professional help are all major signs of depression. But when the teens were asked, “Are you depressed?” the numbers from the ’80s and 2010s were practically the same. Young people have been feeling common symptoms of depression without realizing or admitting that they have a problem.
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Why is this happening? Sure, the world is a little crazy at the moment, but we also live in a time of extreme privilege. People have unrivaled access to technology, millennials never had to deal with the draft, and we have access to the glory that is Netflix. How could we be so unhappy?
There are several reasons. If you’re someone who thinks contemporary technologies are a blight on modern life, experts can back that feeling up: A study published in PLOS One found that going on Facebook made users feel less satisfied with their daily lives and less happy from moment to moment. Basically, logging onto Facebook made them pretty immediately sad. Another study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that the more young people used social media, the more depressed they became. Those are only two of many studies that say Facebook is the devil, and it leaves nothing but sadness in its wake.
It’s not shocking to think that constantly looking at pictures of other people having fun while you’re sitting in a crappy apartment (speaking from experience) would have an adverse effect on your mental health. But not all the evidence blames social media. A study conducted at UC San Diego found positive effects of Facebook: Combing through thousands of posts from 2009-2012, researchers found that positivity spread through the social media more than negativity. A happy message from a friend led others to post their own positive messages and left the users happier than before.
In the end, I think it’s likely that social media makes you feel sad when you’re already sad and makes you feel good when you want to feel good. You know how you search out sad songs when you’re heartbroken? Well, when we’re in a bad mood, we look to Instagram for a perfectly toned girl to make us feel inferior and give us a reason to feel like garbage.
Other experts think social media is just one of many problems of modern life that’s causing millennial sadness. Twenge partially blames the rise of singlehood for the rise of depression: Since people are often staying single well into their 20s and 30s, the likelihood of loneliness and isolation is increased, she says.
But in my opinion, people getting married late is far from the biggest problem. Yes, millennials and younger people experience more isolation than generations past. I work from home, so if I see anyone besides my husband and a Trader Joe’s clerk, I’ve had a pretty social week. But the idea that simply being single is leading the charge of depression and anxiety feels wrong. The fact that women don’t feel the need to get married right out of school is a sign of progress. Yes, being single can be stressful, but far less stressful than being pressured into marriage when you’re not ready.
Therapist Alison Crosthwait has a different hypothesis. She says that the obsession with material things is a major part of the problem. “Materialism is a straight path to feeling empty,” she explains. Since many millennials are obsessed with getting the latest iPhone or literally keeping up with the Kardashians, it’s made many of us ungrounded and unfulfilled.
Stefan Taylor, the founder of ADHD Boss, who’s worked extensively with depressed and anxious youth, agrees that all those things contribute to unhappiness. He adds that the super-competitive gig economy isn’t helping things either. “You might have to scrape and claw your way out of a difficult financial situation,” Taylor says about millennial financial prospects. According to Forbes, 39 percent of workers aged 18-24 worked a side job while 44 percent of employees aged 35-44 had a side hustle in addition to working full-time.
Though the rise of quick-pseudo-employment apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Fiverr may seem like a boon to kids who just want to make an extra buck, it’s actually a sign of difficult economic times. Younger generations aren’t making enough from a single job (and are often saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt). So they have to spend their spare moments driving people around to be able to afford rent (in an apartment they likely share with a roommate). Other millennials have become so obsessed with possessions, they have to work around the clock to afford “the good life.” Either way, it’s not a great situation.
So after examining the work of experts and taking in all the studies, I can only come to one conclusion: Everything in the world is terrible, and depression will rise forever until we live in a world of Eeyores.
OK, that might be a bit much, but if seemingly everything about modern life is contributing to a rise in depression, what are we supposed to do? Well, it might not be so dire—not everyone agrees that depression is taking over.
In their book The Loss of Sadness, Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield refute claims of rising depression. They suggest that the growth in diagnosed mental illness isn’t actually due to an increase in depressed people, rather that therapists have been relaxing the definition of depression. In 1980, research scientists wanted to measure depression more easily and reliably. So instead of being based on cases of extreme disorder, the criteria was widened to include people with less severe symptoms.
Horwitz and Wakefield claim that this new system leads ordinary sadness to sometimes being diagnosed as a mental illness, or “medicalized sadness.” Basically, the rise of depression is just a huge case of misdiagnoses.
Whether the depression wave is real or exaggerated, there is some good in the rise of mental illness: As a culture, we’re starting to become more accepting of those who suffer from depression. People aren’t as ostracized or called “crazy” for dealing with mental illness as they were. It’s becoming more just a thing a lot of us have to deal with.
So why are we all depressed? Nobody really knows. Most agree that taking a break from social media, stressing less about work, and finding more IRL human connection can help relieve sadness. But that’s not always possible, and might not help people currently struggling.
Still, with people seeking mental health care in greater numbers and feeling comfortable in sharing their pain, there’s hope. Sure, I was depressed, and so were most of my friends. But it doesn’t last forever. And soon enough, my Facebook feed will be #blessed again.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons GIFs, check out her blog, Half-Assed Crafts.