Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 48, Issue 11, pp 2087–2098 | Cite as

Secular Trends in Adolescent Depressive Symptoms: Growing Disparities between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Schools

  • Rebekah Levine ColeyEmail author
  • Michael O’Brien
  • Bryn Spielvogel
Empirical Research


Growing economic inequality across the family and school contexts that adolescents inhabit may have significant consequences for their psychological well-being. Yet little research has assessed the mental health repercussions of economic inequities or whether such repercussions have shifted with rising inequality. This study assessed annual Monitoring the Future surveys with 8th (n = 124,468; age 13; 59 percent White, 41 percent students of color), 10th (n = 164,916; age 15; 65 percent white, 35 percent students of color), and 12th (n = 60,664; age 17; 66 percent white, 34 percent students of color) grade students from 1989–2017. Analyses tracked secular trends in adolescent depressive symptoms and assessed whether family and school socioeconomic status (SES) disparities in depressive symptoms have shifted over time. Depressive symptoms showed significant elevations in 2014–2017 among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders over 2010–2013 levels. Pervasive small SES gaps were found in adolescent depressive symptoms, with youth from lower SES families and lower SES schools reporting higher depressive symptoms than their more advantaged peers across all grades. Family SES gaps remained stable over recent decades, whereas school SES gaps rose significantly in recent years across all grades and genders, suggesting that the recent rise in depressive symptoms is driven by adolescents in low SES schools. The results suggest that repercussions of growing economic inequality may extend to psychological outcomes, and identify the need for greater preventive and intervention services targeting adolescent mental health.


Economic inequality Adolescent depression Secular trends Health disparities 


Authors’ Contributions

R.L.C. developed the idea for the study, led methodological decision-making and interpretation of the data, and contributed to the drafting of the manuscript; M.O. participated in study development and design, performed the statistical analyses, contributed to data interpretation, and participated in manuscript preparation; B.S. participated in study development and design, and contributed to methodological decision-making, data interpretation, and the drafting of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Data Sharing and Declaration

The data analyzed in the current study were drawn from the Monitoring the Future study public-use files which can be accessed from the National Addiction & HIV Data Archive Program hosted by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan, and from a private use data agreement with the Monitoring the Future team at the University of Michigan.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Counseling, Developmental, & Educational PsychologyBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA

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