The report’s findings are so startling that Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, which released the survey, was shocked when she sat down to read it.
Among the more disturbing statistics: Nearly 60% of teenage girls surveyed said they had experienced “constant feelings of sadness or despair” in the past year, while 30% had seriously considered suicide. About 18% said they had experienced sexual violence in the past year and 14% had been forced to have sex. The survey also showed similar declines in the mental health of LGBTQ teens.
Numbers like these are a coded emergency—not just for parents, but for educators and policymakers.
Teenagers today are growing up under an umbrella of anxiety that would have been incomprehensible during their parents’ teens. They live in real fear of someone walking into their classroom with a gun. They live with intense body image pressures, exacerbated by Instagram flicks, and worry about the consequences of a momentary lapse in judgment on social media. Many are struggling with the existential threat of climate change.
“It’s the perfect recipe for the worst kind of stress,” says adolescent development expert Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.
Adults have not only failed to address these concerns, but in some cases are actively doing so—such as, for example, pushing laws targeting LGBTQ teenagers.
Higher rates of sexual violence against girls would help explain some of the decline in their mental health. The age at which girls start puberty has also been creeping younger, which could exacerbate the changes seen in the CDC data due to a complex mix of hormonal shifts and adult pressures on still-young minds.
Every parent I know has the same question: Is there anything we can do to mitigate the damage? The first is to improve teenagers’ sense of connectedness. Ethier points to a large body of research showing that the more connected children are to family and school, the better off they are. “Those young people who feel that sense of connection, 20 years later, will have better mental health, are less likely to have attempted suicide and less likely to have used substances,” she says.
Bonding also means creating healthy social relationships with peers. Teenagers lost so much critical personal socialization time during the early stages of the pandemic, and social media was a poor and perhaps even dangerous substitute — especially for girls. “We have a lot of correlative data showing that social media use, particularly at high levels, is associated with mental health problems,” says Jamie Howard, director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute.
Schools can reinforce personal interactions by declaring the school a social media-free zone and limiting recreational use of phones during the day. “Kids need to learn sophisticated social skills in high school, and if we don’t teach them, they won’t have them,” says Prinstein. “We have to give them opportunities to practice.”
Here, too, parents must increase their efforts. This means setting rules around the use of devices and social media and modeling that behavior yourself. For those worried about being the mean parent to your child’s peer group, blame US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who recently wisely said that 13 is too young for social media.
Parents should be aware of the signs of depression, which often manifests as irritability rather than sadness in young and younger teens. Pay attention if your children’s sleeping or eating habits are changing, or if they no longer seem interested in activities they used to enjoy.
The suicide statistics are particularly frightening. The advice for parents on this topic is simple: talk to your children. “If you’re concerned that your child is having suicidal thoughts, ask them,” says Howard. She emphasized that raising suicide does not implant the idea in people who are not depressed. But growing up with a teenager who thinks about self-harm makes them much more likely to share their feelings.
Talk therapy like dialectical behavior therapy can be very effective for teenage girls, especially those who are suicidal, Howard says. But they can change lives only if they decide. As I’ve written before, there is a capacity problem when it comes to mental health providers for children. President Joe Biden’s administration has prioritized investments in mental health services; we should see results from this effort sooner rather than later.
Parents reading these statistics may feel helpless or overwhelmed. As a mother of a two-year-old daughter, of course I do. Yes, there are concrete ways we can help our teenagers during this critical period of development.
But as a society, we are failing our children. Helping them will require a society-wide response.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Trans teens benefit from gender-affirming care: Lisa Jarvis
• This column may or may not cause an allergic reaction: Adam Minter
• Older Americans need more protection from Covid: Faye Flam
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the biotechnology, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion
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