A popular culture increasingly focused on the external - from wealth to looks and status - has contributed to the uptick in mental health issues, researchers believe.
"It's another piece of the puzzle - that yes, this does seem to be a problem, that there are more young people who report anxiety and depression," says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and the study's lead author. "The next question is: What do we do about it?"
Led by Twenge, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, from 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.
Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938. A few individual categories increased at an even greater rate - with six times as many scoring high in two areas:
_ "hypomania," a measure of anxiety and unrealistic optimism (from 5 percent of students in 1938 to 31 percent in 2007)
_ and depression (from 1 percent to 6 percent).
Twenge said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.
The study also showed increases in "psychopathic deviation," which is loosely related to psychopathic behavior in a much milder form and is defined as having trouble with authority and feeling as though the rules don't apply to you. The percentage of young people who scored high in that category increased from 5 percent in 1938 to 24 percent in 2007.
Twenge previously documented the influence of pop culture pressures on young people's mental health in her 2006 book "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before." Several studies also have captured the growing interest in being rich, with 77 percent of those questioned for UCLA's 2008 national survey of college freshmen saying it was "essential" or "very important" to be financially well off.
Experts say such high expectations are a recipe for disappointment. Meanwhile, they also note some well-meaning but overprotective parents have left their children with few real-world coping skills, whether that means doing their own budget or confronting professors on their own.
"If you don't have these skills, then it's very normal to become anxious," says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City who hopes the new study will be a wake-up call to those parents.
Scott Hunter, director of pediatric neuropsychology at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital, points out that the latest generation has been raised in a "you can do anything atmosphere." And that, he says, "sets up a lot of false expectation" that inevitably leads to distress for some.
In our population, we can tell you about 50% of the teenagers that we see are clinically depressed," said Dr. Peggy Smith, director of one of several teen health clinics in the Houston area. He saids the epidemic must be addressed quickly.
"Depression if it's not intervened can lead to suicide."
Early stress, anxiety, and depression could lead to long term behavioral and social problems, poor decision-making, and drug dependency. Some notice younger and younger children taking antidepressants. So what's triggering this unsettling trend?
Students themselves point to everything from pressure to succeed - self-imposed and otherwise - to a fast-paced world that's only sped up by the technology they love so much.
"Everything is at arms reach nowadays like drugs," said 20 year-old Walter Hernandez.
"I think it's the high expectation level of my mother, school, and I just got married," said 21 year-old Crystal Hernandez. "She wants me to finish school, because I didn't finish school."
Crystal and Walter Hernandez recently had a baby together. They acknowledge their generation's struggles. They say the Internet, media, and pop culture are partly to blame.
"Back when I was going to middle school, I had friends who were bi-polar, suicidal, and they took medication," said Crystal.
Parents can enhance their children's well being by setting appropriate expectations, and providing a nurturing and stable environment and greater interaction, experts say.