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SPECIAL REPORT: The Proof Is In the Depression/Anxiety Rate

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“We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s.”

Thinking gnome

It is a system that is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.

So writes Peter Gray at the beginning of his January 26, 2010, Psychology Today article titled “The Dramatic Rise of Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents.”

The Study

Gray gets his info from a “just-released study headed by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University” where she and colleagues assessed a “Personality Inventory” that has been given to college students around the U.S. since 1938, as well as a similar version for younger adolescents dating back to 1951. “The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers…in the larger world,” he writes. “Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, during World War II, during the Cold War, and during the turbulent 1960s and early ’70s than they are today.”

A given in the world of psychology is that anxiety and depression increase as people sense lack of control over their own lives. Indeed, those who score higher on the “Internal Locus of Control” aspect of Julien Rotter’s “Internal-External Locus of Control Scale” have a stronger belief that “things” are controlled by the person, and therefore tend to fare better in life in general. On the other hand, someone scoring higher on the “External Locus of Control” believe more strongly that circumstances outside the person are in control, which ultimately causes more anxiety leading to depression.

Analyzing studies that utilized Rotter’s Scale from 1960 through 2002 and involving children aged 9 to 14 along with college students, a dramatic shift from Internal Locus to External Locus has been revealed. How dramatic a shift? “The average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. This followed the linear trend of rise in depression and anxiety.”

How Did This Happen to an Entire Nation of Children?

Twenge theorizes that there has been a shift from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals that leads to an External Locus. Today, instead of having intrinsic goals “that have to do with one’s own development as a person – such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing,” children’s goals “have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments.” In the 60s and 70s, most college freshmen stated “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was most important to them. The majority of today’s college students think “being well off financially” is most important. (Author’s Note: The timing of this article is good. I had just written for the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of Home Education Magazine my column titled “We Are Reaping What We’ve Sown” which uses terms like “consumer ingrained lust for instant gratification” – you may want to check it out for a different perspective on the same topic.)

“Twenge suggests that the shift from intrinsic to extrinsic goals represents a general shift toward a culture of materialism, transmitted through television and other media.” Well, yeah. However, Gray thinks Twenge is only partly correct, and I agree.

Decline of Free Play Also to Blame

Like many others, Gray has seen the decline in children’s “freedom to play and explore on their own.” Free play, he explains, “is how kids learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.” (Right on, Peter Gray, oh, I hope a lot of parents are reading this!) In the incredible amount of “protecting” of kids today, “we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.”

Here’s Where Gray and I Believe Schooling Enters the Picture

“Children today spend more hours per day, days per year, and years of their in school than ever before.” There are too many “important” tests. There is too much time out of school in settings controlled by adults who direct, rank, judge and reward. “In school,” writes Gray, “children learn quickly that their own choices of activities and their own judgments of competence don’t count; what matters are the teachers’ choices and judgments.”

Up to the level of graduate school, “the goal in class, in the minds of the great majority of students, is not competence but good grades.” And, Gray admits, “This is our fault. We’ve set it [all] up this way.” Constant testing and evaluation that gets more intense every year “is a system that very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. It is a system that is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.”

And Gray’s not finished yet, bless his heart! “School is also a place where children have little choice about with whom they can associate. They are herded into spaces filled with other children that they did not choose…In free play, children who feel harassed or bullied can leave the situation and find another group that is more compatible; but in school they cannot. Whether the bullies are other students or teachers (which is all too common), the child usually has no choice but to face those persons day after day. The results are sometimes disastrous.”

Parents at the Helm, please read this: “As a society we have come to the conclusion that children must spend increasing amounts of their time in the very setting where they least want to be. The cost of that belief, as measured by the happiness and mental health of our children, is enormous. It is time to re-think education.”

The Solution

Gray notes the Sudbury model as well as unschoolers – yes, unschoolers! – as a healthier way, “where freedom, play, and self-directed exploration prevail…Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves. They do so joyfully, and in the process they develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional well-being…It’s time for society to take an honest look.”

Oh, heavens, Parents at the Helm, this has been my message – and the message of many others – for decades now. There is no question in my mind that millions – yes, millions – of children suffer daily, ever closer to the physical and mental disorders of which Gray speaks, with depression and anxiety just two of many. (As a non-scientist I believe the status quo also alters personality and is creating an epidemic of personality disorder). This type of information cannot get out to others fast enough, broadly enough. Can you help?

Perhaps you can share this post with a parent who sees behavior and/or personality changes in his/her child, but doesn’t know the cause. Perhaps you can share the existence of this site with a parent whom you know might act if these implications of school attendance are presented to them as outlined by Peter Gray. Perhaps you, too, can speak out in your local newspaper via a reporter or a letter to the editor. Compulsory attendance at school as it exists today is devastating to individual children and society as a whole. Raising children free of this systemic conditioning, this constant exposure to bullies and others they would choose not to be around, and granting freedom to play and learn is the way to a healthy, sane, self-reliant future.


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4 Responses to “SPECIAL REPORT: The Proof Is In the Depression/Anxiety Rate”

  1. Beverley says:

    It's reports and studies like this that vindicate my decades long sense of the damage done by compulsory mass schooling that can't appropriately keep up with societal change, and thus begin the meet the needs of children or their families. It doesn't matter that schooling is well-intentioned or that it raises the economic status of a percentage of the individuals it educates or even empowers them politically. The costs are too great. The consequences too worrying.

    Unschooling and home education are only part of the answer: schooling MUST evolve.

  2. I agree; the question is how, when instead of getting better the practices make the situation – and its consequences – ever worse. And the consequences occur in silence and are pervasive…how does one relay this info besides sharing results of studies to which any parent can (and does) reply, "That's not happening in MY child's school?"

  3. Laura says:

    Thanks so much for posting (and explaining!) this Linda. Absolutely essential information.

  4. Thanks, Laura. I hope you'll find opportunity to share it more widely. The actual Psych Today includes much more info, but I wanted to get the most salient points into one post instead of two. This is all so very important I just didn't want anyone to miss part of it.

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