While adults like to worry about the dangers of spring break and twerking, it turns out that adolescents worldwide have a very real problem that needs more attention: depression. According to a new report by the World Health Organization, “depression is the predominant cause of illness and disability for both boys and girls aged 10 to 19 years.” Suicide is the third most common cause of death in adolescents, behind traffic accidents and deaths from HIV/AIDS.
There’s a lot of public interest in the prevention of deaths from HIV and traffic accidents, as there should be, but depression gets less attention, perhaps because it seems like a much more complex issue. For one thing, it is often a hidden disease. In half of all adult mental illness cases, the sufferer first started showing symptoms by age 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated. That’s not particularly surprising. The very things that can exacerbate and even cause mental health problems are also the factors that make it harder to detect. “Violence, poverty, humiliation and feeling devalued can increase the risk of developing mental health problems,” according to the WHO. But people who are living in poverty or in societies plagued by violence are far less likely to have access to services for diagnosis and treatment. Young people feel devalued because they’re being treated as less than valuable.
Still, this WHO report should spur action, on a worldwide scale, and force us to evaluate how we react to adolescents who are exhibiting symptoms of depression. In the U.S., there has been a drastic shift in how we view and address adolescent bullying in recent years. What used to be seen as an inevitable part of the childhood experience is now being treated as a legitimate social problem that can be significantly reduced with the proper interventions. Part of what changed is an understanding that what happens to you in adolescence can have repercussions throughout your entire life, particularly when it comes to mental health. Surely there can be campaigns built around detecting and treating depression that are similar to the anti-bullying campaigns. While it’s certainly upsetting to learn that depression rates are so high for teenagers around the world, the news should also be considered an opportunity to start fighting this disease when it begins, instead of waiting until someone has been suffering for years before doing anything about it, or until it’s too late.