Belfast Telegraph

Wanting a body just like Kim Kardashian's... and 19 of the other reasons why adolescent girls are so depressed

By Mary Kenny

A UK academic survey, the Millennium Cohort Study, has found that 24% of adolescent girls at the age of 14 were depressed (compared with 9% of boys). One of the authors, Praveetha Patalay of the University of Liverpool, said that: "Compared to previous generations, there seem to be increasing problems, particularly in girls." Twenty thoughts on this situation…

More openness about mental illness and less stigma surrounding the problems may be partly why youngsters admit to depression. More openness is good.

Mental illness was often hidden. When I was a youngster I was punished for repeating what I'd heard whispered: "Mrs So-and-So has had a nervous breakdown." I was told sternly: "You must never, ever say that about someone."

Later, in France, I heard various forms of mental vulnerability referred to by the more attractive phrase "tempérament d'artiste".

There were certain euphemisms in Ireland which were also used, not all of them disparaging. Someone apt to have mood swings was 'highly strung'. This also referred, sometimes approvingly, to thoroughbred racehorses.

Another word in currency was 'neurasthenia'. An aunt of mine had been told she suffered from neurasthenia, and it was a comfort to her, when unhappy. She took it to mean 'hypersensitive', as if one layer of skin had been peeled off.

Depression and mental illness have always existed, but not all forms of depression were pathologised as a medical condition. Some were called 'melancholia', and maybe teenagers should be consoled by the knowledge that adolescents were always prone to 'melancholia'.

The current UK study puts considerable blame on social media. Emotional problems arise because young girls, already insecure, are constantly comparing themselves to other, apparently more fortunate, lives.

Then there's 'body image dissatisfaction', triggered by so many explicit pictures of Kim Kardashian-type ideal bodies. A serious source of girls' depression.

And cyberbullying. To be tackled. As per Stella O'Malley's book Bully-Proof Kids.

Yet there is quite a lot to be worried about, factually. The world could go up in a nuclear holocaust at any moment. Around the globe, there are daily tragedies and afflictions. All this is brought instantly to our screens. Life has always been uncertain, but earlier generations weren't as instantly informed about so much.

Being exposed to endless streams of information adds to anxiety. Or, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says: "In greater knowledge is greater sorrow."

Sexual liberation can be freedom from old taboos; it can also bring new insecurities. It may well be depressing for a 14-year-old to be worried about whether she will measure up in terms of sexual performance. 'Sexting' is another source of harassment and concern.

For the millennial generation, child-rearing has been approached in a much gentler way than ever before. We don't (usually) smack children any more. Parents are told to 'be positive' in their attitudes. Childhood itself is probably happier. But this protective upbringing may not prepare youngsters for the hardships that everyone encounters. Including the psychological hardships.

The central tenet of Buddhism is: "Life is suffering." The teachings of the Greek Stoics also flowed into our cultures: you must endure and face difficulties without complaint. The atheist Nietzsche said we should "be hard!" in our characters - in preparation for what life may throw at us.

It may help adolescents to learn about these Stoical traditions, which have lasted over so many centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Stoic, has recently enjoyed a popular revival. He starts his meditations by saying: "Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness." A useful thought before going on your Twitter feed?

Parents are encouraged to have honest conversations about mental health issues. But teens don't always want to share with parents. And maybe they do need their space, and their own secrets.

Anyone, adolescent or adult, who needs clinical help with mental health problems should get it. Pronto. But for everyday feelings of being low, unloved, lonely or self-loathing (mentioned in the study), sad poetry can be strangely consoling. I remember being uplifted by Shelley's Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples when I was a miserable 15-year-old. Identify with Shelley!

It's recently been discovered the teenage brain needs a huge amount of sleep. They're not always being lazy when they lie in bed: they need the slumber. Some depression may be linked to sleep deprivation. Early to bed, then.

Girls from poorer backgrounds were more likely to be depressed, so money can help. Yet emphasis on wealth comparisons can make you more depressed.

Social media, which is blamed for causing so much anxiety, also has many good effects - crowdfunding for charitable projects, linking people up with one another, and helping with rescues in great disasters. So that's a cause for cheerfulness.

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