Making Sense of the Latest Data on Teen Mental Health
Know that there are many things parents and caring adults can do to #StandByTeens when young people experience poor mental health. Start with loving your teen and giving them the support they need to feel better. Build their resilience and give them coping strategies to deal with stress. And when needed, help them to find a mental health professional.
A 2023 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data paints a startling picture of teen mental health. It shows 42% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness; 22% seriously considered attempting suicide; 18% made a suicide plan, and 10% attempted suicide. With statistics trending in the wrong direction for the past decade, it’s no wonder that many parents are so concerned about protecting their children.
Explaining the Rise in Poor Teen Mental Health
Countless articles have been published trying to figure out the cause for these alarming numbers. Some point the finger at social media, and others suggest it’s due to concerns about violence. Rising political polarization and divisive language between groups often receive some blame. All of these causes – and many others – play a role in affecting teen mental health. During adolescence, we’re like sponges – deeply absorbing and processing all the events around us. It can take a serious toll on mental health and emotional well-being.
The upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have also caused an increase in emotional distress among teens precisely because it interfered with the developmental needs unique to this age. At a developmental time when teens typically crave connections with peers and caring adults, they had to stay home to protect themselves and others from the disease. Many schools were closed to limit the spread of the disease. Teens continued their education from home in front of a laptop. Social events and life milestones like graduation ceremonies were canceled or held virtually. At a time when they look for mentors like teachers and coaches who role model what it means to be a healthy, thriving adult, they had to settle for phone calls and remote learning. During a phase of life practically defined by the need to gain increasing independence and to answer the hardest question life offers, “Who am I,” they were denied opportunities to “stretch.” Instead, they were limited in their ability to explore the world and, as a matter of safety, needed to follow rigid rules.
Building a Resilient Generation
Given the developmental challenge the pandemic posed for adolescents, it is remarkable how resilient many young people were during these years. Many teens discovered ways to thrive and give back during the challenging times we’ve endured over the past few years. They raised money for young people in war-torn countries. They protected their elders and donated baskets of toiletries and self-care items to members of their communities. They organized toy drives for children’s hospitals. These are just a few examples of the generous acts teens displayed. We need to draw from these examples and remind ourselves moving forward that when teens are supported by caring adults and given opportunities to contribute to their communities, it can have a significant positive effect on their mental health.
Teen resilience was also strengthened because many learned that connecting with others is essential, especially in stressful times. Throughout the pandemic, parents and young people consistently identified social support as the best protection against feeling helpless, anxious, or depressed. Examples of social support include spending family time together, meeting up with, calling or texting a friend, sharing information about community resources, or helping someone see something in their lives more positively. These acts help us feel more connected.
Supporting Teen Mental Health
Check in with your child. Your attention itself offers a layer of security. It also will help you know when you should turn for professional support. Never feel as though discussing emotional health causes distress. Discussing mental health and how it affects all of us helps remove the stigma that has been attached to it for too long. Talking about emotional distress and seeking professional help are signs of strength, not weakness. These activities show a tremendous amount of self-awareness and forward thinking. They signal that a person is in touch with their feelings and brave enough to share them with others. Seeking help demonstrates someone knows they deserve to feel better and are willing to put in the time and energy to get themselves to a better place mentally and emotionally. Being vulnerable in the short term may be uncomfortable. Still, it allows many people to lead richer and fuller emotional lives in the long term. For tips on finding a mental health professional, see here.
Taking Care of Yourself
It is critical to know that one of the best ways to support your teen’s mental health is to take care of yourself first. Make the time and space to practice your favorite self-care activities. Take a walk or a bike ride — enjoying nature has proven health benefits. Meditate or do yoga. Turn off the TV and get off social media to escape into a new book. Take some deep breaths before you dive back into your responsibilities. All of these activities are proven to enhance well-being and focus. Above all, demonstrate as much compassion and forgiveness for yourself as you do for others. Your teen is watching you. When they see you still care about yourself, even when you are struggling, they’ll learn that you’ll be compassionate to them as well.
While the data on teen mental health is concerning, we must use it to empower us as parents and caring adults. Adolescents deserve guidance and support from everyone to help them feel their best. This is an opportunity to check in on your teen’s well–being and show your teen how much you love them.