The Teen Mental Health Crisis—Are Teens Really in Crisis?

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Overview of teen mental health

If you have watched, listened to, or read the news recently, or perhaps simply live with a teenager then you might have a sense of what is going on with teen mental health. In recent years, we have been alerted about the worsening of teen mental health, and the global pandemic certainly did not help.

In fact, many believe that the pandemic is the cause for rising rates in adolescent mental health issues, however, research shows that teens’ mental health was worsening even prior to this.

You might be asking yourself “what do you mean by teen mental health?” and as a follow up to that, you might also wonder, “are teens really in crisis?”. Let me start by answering what we, as mental health professionals, mean when we’re talking about teen mental health.

We specify teen mental health because adolescence is a time of life that is particularly formative, tumultuous, and filled with change. Because of this, and the brain development that is happening at this time of life, the mental health of teenagers is particularly vulnerable. Too often, there is a misconception that mental health is about feeling good all the time.

In fact, our wellness-oriented culture would lead you to believe that the absence of emotional suffering is our goal or path towards “achieving” mental health. In fact, though, it’s not! Lisa Damour, PhD. defines mental health as “having the right feelings at the right time and being able to manage those emotions effectively.” This means that rather than feeling happy all the time, we experience a range of emotions, including fear, sadness, worry, and we feel them when it is called for.

For example, if you experience a loss or are making a transition in your life, it would be expected that you feel sad or worried about these things and can find adaptive ways of coping with these feelings. Being mentally “unhealthy” might look more like feeling persistently sad or worried in contexts that do not justify those types of emotional reactions or intensity. So when we talk about the trends in teen mental health, this is increasingly the problem we’re finding with our adolescents.

The CDC reports that in 2021, 44% of teens indicated feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year. In addition to this, reports of around 22% of teens surveyed also seriously considered ending their life. Both of these statistics show significant increases compared to previous years, especially in trends observed from the past 10 to 20 years.

Effect of the pandemic, social media, and academic stress on teens

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on teen mental health. Isolation, disrupted routines, increased family discord or abuse and loss of prosocial activities have contributed to increased rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents. In addition, the pandemic also led to increases in screen time as we turned to virtual learning and teens relied more heavily on their phones and social media to connect with peers.

Unfortunately, excessive screen time, particularly on social media platforms, has been linked to increased feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety among teenagers. Beyond this, the pressure to perform academically, whether in school or in preparation for college admissions, can lead to stress and mental health issues among teens.

When surveyed, 61% of teens report that getting good grades is one of their top stressors. To wrap it all up, teens are keenly aware of the ongoing sociopolitical climate, issues around climate change, and their degree of safety and current rates of violence.

Let’s not forget that adolescents are already undergoing a huge renovation and rewiring project as their brains are transforming significantly during this time. Under the most typical circumstances, teens are already vulnerable due to the fact that the emotional part of their brain, the amygdala, is beginning its’ transformation before the rational part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex.

Because these areas of the brain are developing at different rates, you’ll know if you spend any time with teens, life can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. I think we can all agree, the circumstances we have all experienced in the past few years has not been the most “typical” and so teens have in some ways doubly suffered. I believe it is due to this combination of factors, at least in part, that we are seeing drastic rises in teen mental health issues.

But…is it a crisis?

So, does this mean that our teens are in crisis? Sort of. The numbers of teens, especially girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community, seem to be at greater risk for mental health issues than in years past. The rates at which depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide have increased is certainly alarming, and at the same time, not really that surprising.

What we can say definitively though is that poor mental health has serious impacts on our youth. Aside from higher rates of diagnosed depression and anxiety, and increased rates of suicidal ideation and attempts, poor mental health impacts teens academic, social, success, and well-being. Research suggests that depressive symptoms are associated with lower grade point averages and linked to higher rates of school dropout.

One symptom associated with depression is social isolation and withdrawal which certainly impacts a teenager’s ability to engage in peer related activities and relationships. In addition, some research suggests that teens who experience depression are more likely to have persisting relationship difficulties into adulthood.

Overall, the impact of mental health issues during childhood and adolescence can have significant long-term effects, and is associated with lower life satisfaction and quality of life, including both physical and psychological health, in adulthood.

How Can We Help?

If you are still not convinced that teenagers are in “crisis”, I hope you are at least wondering how you might be able to help support the teens in your life. The first thing to do is be aware of the warning signs. While you may not be adept at knowing the nuanced symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders, you can pay attention to some of these things:

  • Changes in school performance or engagement
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for example avoiding going to school or seeking constant reassurance.
  • Frequent or increased defiance or aggression
  • Withdrawal from things they typically enjoy such as hanging out with friends or watching a TV show.
  • Changes in appetite, hygiene, or sleep

If you notice some of these changes or behaviors in a teen you know and/or love, here are some ideas on how you can help:

  1. Provide a safe and supportive environment for teens. No one wants to see someone they care about in pain or emotional discomfort. What is meant as well-intended support and problem solving is often received as unwelcomed advice from teens. Focus on validating their experience and feelings rather than heading directly towards solving the problem.
  2. Learn about mental health resources in their school. Most schools have some type of student support team that likely includes at least one mental health professional such as a school psychologist or counselor. Learn who this person is, what kind of services they provide and how you can work together to support the teen you care about.
  3. Sometimes we need more help than supportive friends and family can provide. If changes in the mood or behavior is worsening, intensifying, or persisting more than a couple of weeks, treatment might be the right option for the teen. Help them explore options for treatment through insurance, or use Mental Health Match, which helps connect individuals to therapists.
  4. If they are in fact in crisis, (i.e., actively self-harming, making plans to get rid of their things, talking about hurting or killing themselves) seek immediate professional help or emergency services.

Adolescence is tough enough as it is. If you or your teen are interested in learning more or are ready to get support, please feel free to reach out. I would love to help you!

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