A peek at the news headlines these days might make you think that everything is going downhill. When it comes to behavioral health among America’s youth, pediatric psychiatrist David C. Rettew, says looks can be deceiving:


Pediatricians often hear parents lamenting the “good old days” when such things as corporal punishment were more easily accepted to help keep kids in line. But taking a step back, it may be worth a more objective look to examine the assumption that child behavioral problems are worse than ever. Measuring overall mental health is not an easy task, but looking at several important metrics indicate that things may not be nearly as bad as many people think.


Take substance use, for example:

From the latest data from the Monitoring the Future Study, one of the nation’s most reliable sources on teen substance use, the use of both alcohol and tobacco among youth is at the lowest level since the study began in 1975. Use of drugs like heroin and ecstasy also are declining. The only major exception to this trend seems to be cannabis use, which has generally shown stable rates during this climate of marijuana decriminalization and, for some states, legalization.


Dr. Rettew looks at some other metrics such as teen pregnancy rates (cut in half over the past 20 years), youth incarceration rates (down significantly since 1995), bullying (hit an all-time low in 2013),  and completed youth suicides (well below historical highs). As far as rates for psychiatric disorders, the jury is still out:

While the rates of many specific psychiatric disorders such as ADHD and bipolar disorder have been rising in youth, as well as the use of psychiatric medications, it is much less clear whether this represents a true rise in these disorders versus other factors such as improved detection and a lower diagnostic threshold.


While it may be too soon to celebrate, Dr. Rettew is cautiously optimistic:

Of course, these hopeful trends in many significant areas do not mean that these problems have been overcome. While much work remains to be done on many fronts, it is still worth keeping in mind that the overall condition of youth mental health may not be as dire as we might be led to believe and that there is evidence that our efforts, perhaps, are leading to some progress.



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