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Explaining long-term trends in adolescent emotional problems: what we know from population-based studies

Armitage, J. M. ORCID:, Collishaw, S. ORCID: and Sellers, R. 2024. Explaining long-term trends in adolescent emotional problems: what we know from population-based studies. Discover Social Science and Health 4 , 14. 10.1007/s44155-024-00076-2

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Over the past four decades, rates of emotional problems in adolescents have increased in many countries, and outcomes for those with mental health problems have worsened. In this review we explore existing population-based studies to evaluate possible explanations for these trends. We include population-based studies that examine both trends in adolescent emotional problems, as well as risk or protective factors previously hypothesised to be associated with trends in youth depression and anxiety. The available evidence on risk or protective factors trends related to family life, young people’s health behaviours and lifestyle, school environment, peer relationships, as well as poverty. Studies reviewed suggest that trends in emotional problems are associated with increases in parental emotional problems, youth weight-control behaviours and eating disorders, school-related stress, as well as a rise in family poverty and social inequality in the 21st Century. One of the biggest changes in young people’s lives over the last few decades has been the rise of digital media to access information and interact with others, but implications for trends in mental health remain unclear. Other trends are likely to have mitigated against even steeper increases in youth emotional problems, for example improvements in youth substance use and a possible long-term reduction in child maltreatment. Epidemiological studies of unselected cohorts testing explanations for secular trends in mental health are scarce and an urgent priority for future research. Such studies will need to prioritise collection of comparable data in repeated population cohorts. Improving young people’s mental health is a major societal challenge, but considerably more needs to be done to understand the connections between social change and trends in youth mental health.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Published Online
Status: Published
Schools: Medicine
Additional Information: License information from Publisher: LICENSE 1: URL:, Type: open-access
Publisher: Springer
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 26 March 2024
Date of Acceptance: 20 March 2024
Last Modified: 26 Mar 2024 15:30

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