Depression hits young in the West

June 9, 1995

The post-war era has witnessed "substantial increases" in the rate of psychosocial disorders in young people across Europe and North America, according to a report by top psychiatrists and criminologists.

However, poverty and unemployment do not seem to have been the principal causal factors because the sharpest increase took place during the golden era of economic growth, low unemployment and improving living conditions between 1950 and 1973.

The study - commissioned by Academia Europea and conducted by an international team of scholars headed by Sir Michael Rutter, professor at London's Institute of Psychiatry, and David Smith, professor of criminology at Edinburgh - reveals that young people aged betwen 12 and 26 increasingly demonstrated a range of so-called psychosocial disorders. These include criminal activity, suicidal behaviour, depression, eating abnormalities like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

Throughout the United Kingdom, the rate of recorded crime, mostly committed by young people, increased tenfold between 1950 and 1993. This is in sharp contrast to the figures for Japan, where crime rates have decreased over the last 40 years. The Japanese homicide rate has actually fallen to 40 per cent of the 1971 figure.

Alcohol consumption declined in the West during the first quarter of the 20th century. But there was a marked increase between 1950 and 1980, when a plateau was reached. Drug abuse also became a fact of life, and the report suggests one in ten young adults in the UK today have used amphetamines, hallucinogens, solvents and "ecstasy".

The rate of suicide has sharply increased among young people, even though in many countries it has fallen among old people. Although the male rate is as much as three times as high as the female rate, evidence of depression is twice as high among women, and the rate of so-called "suicidal behaviour" is also higher among women.

The report points to various causes, including increasing levels of family discord, individualism and rising expectations, and even the mass media, which may have magnified the effects of social change. In particular, the report points to the changing nature of adolescence, and notes that young people have become more isolated from the rest of society, retreating to a different world of music, dress and culture.

Psychosocial Disorders in Young People, by Michael Rutter and David J. Smith. Published by John Wiley & Sons. Price: Pounds 49.95.

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