Column: Our kids are hurting

It is in the nature of things for the older generation to worry about the young. We worry about what they do, and what they don’t do, and we worry about the kind of adults they will become.

These days, there is more to worry about. There is a problem growing among our kids, growing dramatically and insidiously and, all too often, invisibly.

It shows up at college counseling centers, which are seeing an enormous increase in students coming for help. To get a sense of the size of the problem, consider this: Fifteen years ago, the University of Chicago’s counseling center delivered 6,000 hours of counseling. Last year, the number of hours reached 11,000. Columbia University in New York City has seen a 40 percent increase in counseling hours since 1994, and the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology has seen a 50 percent increase since 1995, as well as a nearly 70 percent rise in student psychiatric hospitalizations.

These trends have been growing for a long time; they did not begin with 9/11.

It’s not just the numbers that have increased. If we were only seeing an increase in the number of students seeking help, we might wonder whether it is simply more acceptable these days to have counseling for problems a student might once have suffered alone. But that is not the case.

Along with the increased numbers, students are coming in with more severe problems. At one university, before 1994, relationship difficulties were the most common problem. Since 1994, it has been stress and anxiety.

Although substance abuse, eating disorders and legal problems have remained steady, depression has doubled, suicidal feelings have tripled and sexual assaults have quadrupled.

The increase in serious psychological and neuropsychological problems among the young begins long before college. There has been a stunning rise in the incidence of autism and related disorders. Children are experiencing depression and anxiety in increasing numbers and at younger ages than ever before.

A recent study of more than 4,000 adolescents found that 19 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys met the criteria for at least one of the following diagnoses: major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and substance abuse/dependence.

Add it all up and what you have is a serious public health issue. The numbers describe an epidemic of psychological suffering among the young. Like the epidemic of obesity – the number of overweight children has doubled in the past 25 years – this epidemic has important implications for lifelong functioning, health and well being.

Each episode of major depression, for example, makes the next one more likely, and also makes it more likely that the next one will be more severe. The other diagnoses have similarly troubling implications for a child’s future.

We need to be alarmed by the epidemic of psychological disorders among the young. In terms of their effect on public health, mental health problems share much in common with obesity: both can kill. Both degrade quality of life and reduce productivity. Both involve the behavior of individuals and the context in which they live. Both are multidimensional problems, with family, school, neighborhood, social, lifestyle and biological factors all playing a role. Both tend to run in families. Both are stigmatized.

In the case of obesity, increased public concern seems to be having an impact. Doctors, parents, schools and corporations are beginning to take action. Research and treatment receive support.

We need the same kind of focus on mental health. We must respond to the epidemic of psychological suffering among the young, recognizing that it is both complicated and urgent. We need to talk about it, and we need to bring resources and creativity to bear.

As the numbers demonstrate, there is no time to lose.

-The writer is a professor in the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.

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