News out today suggests that, based upon responses to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), youth today have more mental health issues than those who took the test in 1938. Here’s the summary:
Pulling together the data for the study was no small task. Led by Twenge, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.
Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938.
It’s no wonder that a test developed 70 years ago may not accurately capture the norms of society today — that’s the main concern with this data. The MMPI was developed from patients diagnosed in the 1930s for what were considered the diagnostic criteria for disorders at that time. As you can imagine, our understanding of mental health and mental disorders has changed over time (and indeed, the MMPI has been superceded by the better-normed MMPI-2). Indeed, the very definitions have changed over the decades.
So while you can say something about this data, I’m not sure you can draw too many specific conclusions about the findings because of the enormous changes the field has undergone in that time. If mental disorders were like diagnosing a broken arm, we could read something into this data. But they’re not like most medical diagnoses — they are subjective and are updated every decade or two (as the recent DSM-V controversy has reminded us).
Twenge [the study’s lead author] previously documented the influence of pop culture pressures on young people’s mental health in her 2006 book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Several studies also have captured the growing interest in being rich, with 77 percent of those questioned for UCLA’s 2008 national survey of college freshmen saying it was “essential” or “very important” to be financially well off.
Experts say such high expectations are a recipe for disappointment. Meanwhile, they also note some well-meaning but overprotective parents have left their children with few real-world coping skills, whether that means doing their own budget or confronting professors on their own.
“If you don’t have these skills, then it’s very normal to become anxious,” says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City who hopes the new study will be a wake-up call to those parents.
Students themselves point to everything from pressure to succeed – self-imposed and otherwise – to a fast-paced world that’s only sped up by the technology they love so much.
But it can’t be the world we live in today that’s the cause for this increase in problems. Can you imagine a much worse world than in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression and the start of WWII? How could a young adult today — with the Internet, access to virtually any information at one’s fingertips, hundreds of virtual ‘friends,’ the ability to even attend college in the first place, etc. — have it worse off than a young adult facing that kind of world?
It seems if we’re going to draw conclusions about these scores in a broad sort of way, we have to acknowledge that while indeed the world is seemingly more “fast paced” (although, simply in a different way than in past generations, which have also had to deal with their own versions of the “fast paced” argument), it’s not a subjectively more difficult or harder life than what one may have experienced in 1938.
What has changed significantly (and changes significantly with virtually every new generation) is how children are raised.
And that, I think, would be an interesting subject to investigate and research further. Are children growing up less resilient than in generations past? Do they have fewer or less effective coping skills? Or are they just more in touch with their inner thoughts and feelings — the kinds of things the MMPI test taps into?
I must admit that I’m more than a little surprised at your comments. I’m sure you’re aware that it’s not what happens to you, but your capacity for dealing with what happens to you that determines mental health. In other words, it’s all about resilience.
Resilience is rooted in attachment. People in general and families in particular were simply more attached (and therefore, individuals more resilient) in the ’30’s and 40’s than they are today even if you factor out the tendency to over-romanticize “the good old days.”
Geographic proximity to family and friends, social stability, and the norm of the intact family led to the kind of resilience that enabled people to withstand the horrors you describe. That doesn’t mean the 30’s and 40’s were some kind of “golden age” but it does point to the fact that the more individualistic society becomes and the more families break down, the less resilient we and our children will be.
Thanks for your informative article.
I actually had Dr. Twenge for two grad school classes at San Diego State. She is pretty awesome.
They’re also studying different cultures world-wide to see if their levels of Narcissism are rising as well.
I do believe this data is flawed and limited as John suggests. However, when you look at additional studies that suggest lower academic performance over the past forty years or more as well as substantial increases in youth violence, it does appear that our youth are more troubled than years gone by. Although the violence data has shown modest improvements recently, one worries that’s partly due to a huge increase in prison populations. Yet, the world indeed is “better” in many ways for everyone.
But such improvements don’t always translate into increased resilience which is related to the ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration. I have to wonder if, as a culture, we’ve failed to teach those core skills as well as we used to.
regarding the differences in reported results–these might be culturally based and not merely mental health issues.
there was sufficiently enough repression and racism 70 years ago in most parts of the usa that many persons might choose to repress any answers which would weigh poorly against them.
we also live in a different world with respect to the general school age population in an academic environment because the education system no longer splits off part of the population to send to vocational schools as we live in a post-industrial society. so a different kind of population is taking this multi-phasic test which i seem to recall involves a certain amount of self-reporting and self-assessment in the way it is proctored.
I think the difference is very interesting, and I also agree studies, especially in the social arena, often do not reflect the complete truth. I also agree its important to compare how are children are raised today. It’s hard to believe that putting our children in day care centers when they are only months old, does not affect their relationships later in life.
Since mental health, as I read on this blog quite often, is partly the result of our environment, it makes sense that changes in our day-to-day way of life can affect our mental health.
Regardless if the study has flaws, I think its important. There are many studies which compare various cohorts-attitudes, behaviors, polictics, and more, that provide us with useful information. I don’t think we should dismiss them because times have changed. The results may reflect how people have adapted to the changes, I believe. Of course they are subjective-that’s the point.
“It seems if weâ€™re going to draw conclusions about these scores in a broad sort of way, we have to acknowledge that while indeed the world is seemingly more â€œfast pacedâ€ (although, simply in a different way than in past generations, which have also had to deal with their own versions of the â€œfast pacedâ€ argument), itâ€™s not a subjectively more difficult or harder life than what one may have experienced in 1938.”
I can’t agree (or disagree) with the above statement, but would like more information as well. Do we really know if the physical oriented labor of the past was more or less difficult than the mentally intensive jobs of the educated today? Is it more fullfilling to sit in a chair in a grey cubicle all day, staring at a computer? Do we really know whether or not the substantial increase of college education obtainment does not affect people’s mental health?
The almost constant need to keep up with technology to get by-still confusing for many.The extra 40 hours a week a mother now works while household duties have not decreased (technology helps, for example, dishwashers, but email and other media seems to take up the time saved? Social pressures have changed..Less communitarians, more individualism… bombarded with advertisements and commercialism and media everywhere you go, your home, connected to all our devices and electrons-always the hum or even nagging of some electronic device…
World travel and relocating due to cheaper travel-culture shock…self-esteem and social expectations..smaller families..
Processed food-and what it does to our brains (overall health)-that’s one I’d like to hear more about. Fifteen minute doctor’s appointments? Pollution and toxins and chemicals piling up? The pharmaceutical chemicals found in our water doesn’t affect us?
Customer service is terrible anymore-you have to serve yourself, which is very time consuming. If something goes wrong, it takes 1/2 an hour just to go through phone menus, transfers, repeating your identifying personal information over and over for security purposes then finally speak to the right person. Have a computer problem? Can’t call microsoft-have to search through loads of blogs for help after you’ve already tried for hours to fix it yourself..
I spend a lot of time each week making (non-leisure) personal business calls and emails or using the internet to do things I did not have to do two decades ago.
It took 3 days’ time-no exaggerating-of phone calls, trips to the store, letters, and arranging for two deliveries and a pick up, two installation appointments, just to get my broken brand new refrigerator replaced by Best Buy. I eventually had to speak with the manufacturer in Japan before the situation was settled. If not for Japan, I’d have to had hired an attorney(now there’s an example for ya)..not to mention the flooding of my kitchen.
A kid accidentally breaks a window playing baseball, and its hours with the insurance companies, statements, letters, phone calls, estimates and even court hearings now to deal with the behavior of children, things which used to be settled among families.
Well there’s lots to consider.
Although the test was designed for the 70s era, it seems significant that the answers (to the same test) have changed; so the subjectivity seems to be one of the main points of the conclusion, rather than an obstruction.
There are so many more positive things today than before-less racism, sexism, less poverty (which is always relative). Being poor in the US, a place largely designed for the middle class could be more stressful than some living in developing world nations where there are community adaptations in place, where most are poor and the way of life is structured for the poor rather than the rich.
But I’m not so sure mental health is one of the positives. Please keep us informed, thanks for the article.
Each generation of elders is partly responsible to train the younger generation, or pay a price for the failure to do so.
Each generation is responsible to choose wisely, or pay the price for the failure to do so.
And, here we are!
The 20s & 30s kids weathered great economic hardship & a couple World Wars. Sacrifice was expected.
The 40s & 50s kids who turned away from the Americana of their parents and redefined society with less norms.
The 60s & 70s kids who looked at the lack of norms and determined that stuff and the accumulation of stuff was the highest ideal.
The 80s & 90s kids look longingly at the excess and find themselves looking for a new more-meaningful existence.
While teens and young adults like the nice stuff their parents may have accumulated — and they want the latest and greatest stuff — they want and need more.
Sadly, this generation gets a raw deal:
– they lack the value of sacrifice their great, great grandparents learned, while…
– they live inundated with consumer messages of greed created by their great-grandparents’ generation, while…
– they learn to accumulate stuff like their grandparents [through discipline] & parents [through credit], while…
– they live in media & web-based world in which their are few accepted standards.
Fortunately, we still have some wise people around to guide those who look for helpful help.