Can we explain increases in young people's psychological distress over time?

Soc Sci Med. 2010 Nov;71(10):1819-30. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.08.012. Epub 2010 Sep 15.


This paper aims to explain previously described increases in self-reported psychological distress between 1987 and 2006 among samples identical in respect of age (15 years), school year and geographical location (West of Scotland). Such increases might be explained by changes in exposure (changes in levels of risk or protective factors) and/or by changes in vulnerability (changes in the relationship between risk/protective factors and psychological distress). Key areas of social change over this time period allow identification of potential explanatory factors, categorised as economic, family, educational, values and lifestyle and represented by variables common to each study. Psychological distress was measured via the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, Likert scored. Analyses were conducted on those with complete data on all variables (N = 3276 of 3929), and separately for males and females. Between 1987 and 2006, levels of almost every potential explanatory factor changed in line with general societal trends. Associations between explanatory factors and GHQ tended to be stronger among females, and at the later date. The strongest associations were with worries, arguments with parents, and, at the later date, school disengagement. The factors which best accounted for the increase in mean GHQ between 1987 and 2006 were arguments with parents, school disengagement, worry about school and, for females, worry about family relationships, reflecting both increasing exposure and vulnerability to these risk factors. A number of limitations to our analysis can be identified. However, our results reinforce the conclusions of others in highlighting the role of family and educational factors as plausible explanations for increases in young people's psychological distress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Body Image
  • Family / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Risk Factors
  • Schools
  • Scotland / epidemiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Change*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires