A new study looking at the mental health of so-called Gen X-ers (i.e., people born between 1974-1983), published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows a marked increase in the tell-tale signs of despair, often characterised by depression, thoughts of suicide, drug use, and excessive drinking.
Back in 2016, when life expectancy in the U.S. started to decline for the first time in the last quarter of a century, this phenomenon was thought to be have been caused by worsening prospects of employment, declining perceptions of socio-economic status, and the erosion of social support among low-income whites in their late 30s and early 40s.
All speculation aside, there has not been any hard data suggesting changes in life expectancy were actually driven by the problems faced by white Gen X-ers.
“What we wanted to do in this paper was to examine whether the factors that may be predictive of those causes of death – substance use, suicidal ideation and depression – are isolated to that particular population subgroup, or whether it’s a more generalised phenomenon,” explained lead author on the study Lauren Gaydosh.
Pouring through the data gleaned from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which tracked the physical and mental health of thousands of Americans born in the mid-70s and 80s, the researchers have found the above hypothesis to be incorrect.
“We found that despair has increased in this cohort, but that increases are not restricted to non-Hispanic whites with low education,” Gaydosh said. “Instead, the increase in despair that occurs across the 30s is generalised to the entire cohort, regardless of race, ethnicity, education, and geography.”
Despite some variation in the patterns of mental health and drug and alcohol abuse between different races and education levels, the trend was fairly stable across every specific group – more volatile behaviour in adolescence, followed by improvement once people entered their 20s, followed by deepening despair later on.
“Public health efforts to reduce these indicators of despair should not be targeted toward just rural whites, for example,” she said, “because we’re finding that these patterns are generalized across the population.”