The world is ripe with crises. And along with pandemic flare-ups, supply chain woes, inflation, and recessions, the mental health crisis experienced by teens is really coming to the forefront. Many older Americans balk at the idea that teens have a problem, citing their “back in my day” mantras. But experts say that for American teens, life is getting more complicated. There are several reasons why teens are legitimately more depressed these days. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the stresses teens were already feeling, leaving in its wake a country of bereft kids.
Going Beyond “Kids Being Kids”
Although many people think that the rising number of depressed teens is because teens are more open about their feelings, or that they are just “kids being kids,” there is a more defining premise at work.
A special survey of almost 8,000 high-school students, which was conducted in the first six months of 2021, found some alarming numbers. More than one in four girls said they had seriously thought about suicide during the pandemic, which accounted for twice the number of boys who considered suicide. The Atlantic reported, “Nearly half of LGBTQ teens said they had contemplated suicide during the pandemic, compared with 14 percent of their heterosexual peers. Sadness among white teens seems to be rising faster than among other groups.”
Kids just being kids is a fallacy for several reasons, one of them being that teens today have been taking better care of themselves than teens did in the past. Despite this, the mental health woes continue. According to The Atlantic, “Since the 1990s, drinking-and-driving is down almost 50 percent. School fights are down 50 percent. Sex before age 13 is down more than 70 percent. School bullying is down. And LGBTQ acceptance is up.”
The problems that teens are currently having go beyond simple moodiness. Objective measures for depression and anxiety, such as such as eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and teen suicides—have risen dramatically over the past decade. “Across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said in October. Yes, today’s teens are more comfortable discussing mental health, but there is also an objective difference in the number of legitimate problems.
“Rising teenage sadness isn’t a new trend, but rather the acceleration and broadening of a trend that clearly started before the pandemic,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, told me. But he added: “We shouldn’t ignore the pandemic, either. The fact that COVID seems to have made teen mental health worse offers clues about what’s really driving the rise in sadness.”
Of course, the pandemic made things worse. Teens thrive on social relationships, and when the country shut down because of Covid-19, teens were forced into isolation.
The pandemic and the closure of schools likely exacerbated teen loneliness and sadness. A 2020 survey from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that loneliness spiked in the first year of the pandemic for everyone, but it rose most significantly for young people. “When kids can’t go to school to see their friends and peers and mentors, that social isolation could lead to sadness and depression, particularly for those predisposed to feeling sad or depressed.”
The real-life hustle and bustle of teens can squelch some of their problems, but when left by themselves to think 24/7, if they have a predilection for depression, it will surface. “Before the pandemic, people could use sports, play, practice, to get their minds off of things that were going on either at home or just the constant struggle of their mind,” Alaina Stanisci, a teen who experienced a relapse of her eating disorder during the pandemic said. “When people found themselves isolated and being home alone and unable to use these coping strategies, I think it really led to a lot of self-reflection and realizing, ‘Hey, maybe I’m not OK in this area, you know?'”
The experts know the crisis is real. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued an urgent public health advisory in December, saying “The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”
Reasons Beyond the Pandemic
But the pandemic isn’t the only reason that teens are having more mental health difficulties. Clearly social media has taken a toll on the American teen psyche, especially when the vast use of social media is taking the place of legitimate human interactions and social interaction. Teens are so invested in getting “likes” that they lose themselves in the process. Spending too much time on their phones also means that teens aren’t exercising, sleeping, and spending enough time with their families.
The stress of the world does not help. Clinical psychologist Lisa Damour said, “In the last decade teenagers have become increasingly stressed by concerns about gun violence, climate change, and the political environment. Increased stress among young people is linked to increasing levels of sadness. Girls, more than boys, are socialized to internalize distress, meaning that they tend to collapse in on themselves by becoming depressed or anxious.”
One burgeoning mental health factor, besides all the violence, is that parents are making things harder on their kids, as anxious parents make for anxious kids. Although parents might think they are shielding their children from the troubles of the world, they are often doing more harm than good. By trying to protect kids from difficulties like chores or other things that are seemingly unfavorable, parents are taking away what their children need. Author Kate Julian wrote, these activities “provide children with two very important things”: tolerating discomfort and having a sense of personal competence. When parents sweep in to solve every problem and take away every ounce of discomfort, kids never learn resilience and how to stand up for themselves.
Murthy has a few ideas for teens who are trying to get themselves back on a positive track. He said, “It’s important to ask for help, work on having healthy relationships, find ways to serve others, manage stress, get sleep, nurture body and mind and be “intentional” when using social media and technology.”
As the world rights itself from the pandemic and continues to deal with economic unrest, uncertainty, and war, teens will do their best to continue to make sense of the world with loving support and a chance to spread their wings autonomously.