Professor discusses how mental health and substance use vary across generations | The Triangle

Professor discusses how mental health and substance use vary across generations

Graphic designed by Emma Dietz and colored by Will Pearson.

Drexel University public health students and professionals gathered in Nesbitt Hall Nov. 14 to listen to “Depression’s got a hold of me: Gender differences and generational trends in alcohol use and mental health among U.S. adolescents and adults” with Katherine M. Keyes, an associate professor in epidemiology at Columbia University. The audience filled the entire room as they waited for Keyes’ presentation on a subject that has drawn increased focus in public health: mental health and substance use trends in different generations.

As audience members took advantage of complimentary food and beverages, they casually spoke about their interest in this topic.

Alexandra Trautman, a public health graduate student at Drexel, said she was attending the presentation to learn about the many applications Keyes’ work has on public health.

“I think it gives a really good baseline of a big population that public health professionals in the future are going to want to target,” Trautman said.

To start her presentation, Keyes made the assertion that there has been an increase in major depressive episodes since 2005 and most of that increase was driven completely by adolescent females. She went around the room and asked what the hypothesized cause could be.

“Social media!” half the room responded and laughed as if it was the most obvious answer.

The audience’s laughter quickly turned to shock as Keyes dismissed that assumption. She stated that no evidence has been able to prove that connection.

Other guesses included increased alcohol and drug use. Keyes again refuted that suggestion, beginning to cite her own research. Her evidence showed there has been a steady decline in substance use among adolescents due to vigorous public health campaigns that have stretched over decades.

According to Keyes, these campaigns have begun to shape the way younger generations view substances like alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. As the approval and normalization of these habits decreases in middle school and high school adolescents, the likelihood of use later in life also decreased. With dramatically dipping graphs and multiple sources, Keyes successfully demonstrated the decreases in substance use over generations; she also unveiled her own important connections.

Keyes stated that birth cohorts, the generation one is born into, influence mental health as well as the likelihood of substance use later in life.

“[A group’s birth cohort] affects their socialization throughout their whole life course because you happened to be at a certain age when different geopolitical moments happened,” Keyes explained.

She then said that if a person notices their peers disapprove of underage or excess drinking, that person is more likely to disapprove of it as well.

She explained that a child could grow up in a family where drinking was normal and even encouraged, but that child would be less likely to drink throughout life if their peers were opposed to drinking.

Keyes continued by presenting evidence that substance use continues to increase in adults even though it is at an all-time low among adolescents — a fact that received a few shocked reactions from attendees.

While this decrease in adolescent drinking seems to demonstrate success in public health, Keyes provided graphs that show these same groups have seen an increase in the acceleration of binge drinking from ages 21-26.

“So we think that we’re making this big public health step by reducing adolescent drinking when really we’re shifting it to faster increases in adulthood,” Keyes stated.

Keyes concluded that public health professionals must vigorously study these birth cohorts to better understand why adult substance abuse is increasing over time. The ongoing research she is conducting follows 18-year-olds into their 50s to further study generational binge drinking, substance abuse and mental health.