Everywhere you look, people these days are stressed out. Many reach a breaking point and sink into depression – a mental health issue few of our grandparents or great-grandparents experienced, yet is so common today.

Or is it? Perhaps people 50 or 75 years ago just didn’t talk about depression, and didn’t seek treatment for it (after all, effective treatments weren’t exactly available back then). Maybe people today are more willing to admit to their depression, and that’s why it looks like everyone is so stressed out and depressed. That's why many researchers are skeptical of the claim that mental health issues are now more common.

One way to get around this problem is to look at anonymous surveys that ask about anxiety and depression. Even better, ask about symptoms of anxiety and depression – that way, people aren’t saying they are depressed outright. Instead, they are reporting how they actually feel.

That was my goal in a study just published in the journal Social Indicators Research. It looked across three samples totaling to 7 million people, two of them nationally representative. I found that teens in the 2010s (compared to the mid-1980s) were 38 percent more likely to have trouble remembering, 74 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping and twice as likely to have seen a professional for mental health issues. College students were 50 percent more likely to say they feel overwhelmed, and adults were more likely to say their sleep was restless, they had poor appetite and everything was an effort — all classic psychosomatic symptoms of depression.

But when people were asked directly if they “felt depressed,” that didn’t change much between the 1980s and the 2010s.

How can that be? Most people don’t realize that having trouble sleeping and remembering are symptoms of depression. Many people admit to being stressed or overwhelmed but don’t consider themselves depressed. The problem is that stress (psychologists usually call it anxiety) is a risk factor for depression, and depression doesn’t always appear as extreme lethargy and sadness – it often shows up in bodily symptoms.

This also means that the rise in mental health issues isn’t caused by people being more willing to admit to being depressed. It actually looks like fewer are admitting to being depressed, because more say they have the psychosomatic symptoms. So it seems to be a true increase in problems, and not just a decline in stigma.

The tougher question is why people seem to be suffering more. I have three theories (I go into these in more depth in Generation Me, which was just published in a revised and updated edition).

1. Our relationships and community ties are weaker.

2. We’re more focused on goals such as money, fame, and image, which Tim Kasser’s work has shown is correlated with anxiety and depression.

3. Our expectations are too high, probably because of the emphasis on “you can be anything you want to be” and highly positive self-views. This was a big theme in the first edition of Generation Me, which came out in 2006, and other observers (I believe independently) came to similar conclusions – for example, Tim Urban (“Why GenY Yuppies are Unhappy”) and Bret Easton Ellis (“Generation Wuss.”)

There are probably other reasons. I doubt technology is the major one, as tempting as it seems – these increases were in place long before cell phones and Facebook. Ditto for the recession. Instead, something else in our culture seems to be making people unhappy.

What do you think it is? And can we do anything about it?

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