Story at a glance
- There’s no specific underlying reason for this trend, experts say, but challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of social media could have both played a role.
- Improving the shortage of mental health care providers is crucial to address the crisis going forward.
- In the meantime, implementing school-based mental health care programs and educating adolescents on responsible media use might help.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
Navigating the tumultuous teenage years has never been easy. But the unique cultural context young Americans find themselves in today is making this transition period especially hard for many.
A recent snapshot of data collected over the past decade paints a bleak picture of just how poorly teenage girls, in particular, are faring.
In the fall of 2021, nearly 60 percent of female high school students said they persistently felt sad or hopeless within the past year — the highest level reported in at least ten years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 2011, just 36 percent said the same thing.
Worryingly, 30 percent of girls said they seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, and nearly 1 in 4 made a plan.
“Our teen girls, they’re in crisis. And for every one that reported or endorsed that they’re in crisis, there’s probably more who didn’t,” said Laurie McGarry Klose, a school psychologist and owner and CEO of RespectED, a consulting firm that provides services to schools and families.
Although the exact reasons behind these trends are unclear, the confluence of societal changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest and a flurry of anti-LGBTQ laws, coupled with the ubiquitous nature of social media and rising rates of sexual violence, might all play a role.
Youth mental health has widely suffered amid those shifts. But the nationally representative CDC survey, which is carried out every two years among high school students, suggests some teenagers are being hit especially hard.
Teen girls reported worse outcomes “across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” compared with their male peers, according to the CDC report.
LGBTQ teens also reported “alarming rates of violence, poor mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” the report found.
“A lot of the social upheaval that we’ve had in the past couple of years, including the pandemic, but also violence against racial minorities, all the legislation that we’re seeing enacted to not even allow for discussion of gender and sexuality in the medical space” may have contributed to these findings, said Anish Dube, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Children, Adolescents and their Families, in an interview with Changing America.
Girls who have come into adolescence or been in adolescence during this period of disruption have had a very different experience than girls who went through their teen years earlier, Klose noted.
“It’s become sort of trite to say, but I think we can’t over-emphasize the impact of the disruption in [teen girls’] lives over the last now, going on four years,” she said.
The onslaught of negative information from media, social media and everywhere else can feel like a bombardment, especially considering the fact that teens’ brains don’t yet have an effective schema to deal with it all, she noted.
Both this information overload and the extreme disruption of socialization brought on by the pandemic can be considered crisis events, Klose said.
Lost social engagement
When school, extracurriculars and other social activities moved online during the pandemic, many Americans felt isolated.
But because teen girls are much more in tune with their peer groups than boys, this shift may have taken a particularly hard toll on them, experts say.
Girls place more importance on intimacy and support from their friends, and often turn to their peers for help coping with stress.
“Young girls tend to be a lot more socially engaged in their peer groups in a collaborative way, but that’s different from the way young boys would be engaged in their peer group,” said Dube.
Although that can vary between particular groups or individuals, “overall, one of the things that you might expect is that for girls who are unable to socialize and unable to meet with their peer groups … they may be more impacted,” Dube said.
That’s not even taking into account other impacts of the pandemic, like personal loss, illness or family financial insecurity.
Because girls place so much importance on interpersonal relationships, they’re also more apt to report those feelings.
“That’s just part of the socialization of those who identify as female,” Klose said.
Bullying and violence
Even before the turbulence of the 2020s, teen girls were reporting rising rates of persistent sadness or hopelessness — a trend that grew alongside the rise of social media and smartphones.
Social media use is associated with mental health issues. For girls specifically, research suggests this could be attributed to the way it disrupts positive activities such as sleeping or exercising. The association between using such platforms and depression is also much stronger in teenage girls than boys.
In addition, some social media platforms are targeted toward girls and young women, Dube said. And the more time anyone spends online, the greater the risk of experiencing cyberbullying.
The CDC report found that 20 percent of female students reported being electronically bullied in the past year, compared with 11 percent of their male peers.
“The likelihood of cyberbullying or likelihood of adverse interactions or adverse experiences in that space would be affecting girls and young women more than they would be boys and young men,” Dube said.
Another disturbing factor that might have led to the uptick in sadness and hopelessness among teen girls is increased rates of sexual violence. In 2021, 1 in 5 girls said they experienced sexual violence, as did 22 percent of LGBTQ teens.
That’s compared with 15 percent of teen girls who said the same in 2011. Over the intervening decade, rates remained largely unchanged for teen boys.
“Girls are much more likely to report these symptoms, whereas boys, even if they have or experienced assault or adverse experiences, cyberbullying, they may not be as likely to report them,” noted Dube.
Amid the decline in teens’ mental health, the United States has been experiencing a shortage of mental health care providers. Bolstering their ranks will be critical in countering the crisis, according to experts.
More school-based interventions could also help address the issue, they say.
The American Psychiatric Association’s “Notice. Talk. Act.” program already works toward this goal. Dube explained that the program “trains school personnel to be able to pick up and recognize and identify symptoms early on, and to implement interventions that might be offered at a school-based level as opposed to requiring a higher level of care.”
The authors of the CDC report offered similar recommendations, including building the connections teens feel to people at school and boosting access to services by improving school-based services.
More research into public health interventions in the mental health space is also necessary, added Dube.
In addition to addressing mental health in the school setting, experts suggest that improving adolescents’ digital and media literacy might also improve mental health going forward. This could include educating kids to be good consumers of media, to recognize and vet information and to more responsibly interact with social media by understanding its risks.
“The thing about social media is just the explosion of accessibility and the sheer lack of anticipation of how to prepare kids to be good consumers,” said Klose.
Acknowledging the struggles teens are facing already marks a significant step in the right direction, Klose says. But she hopes the progress doesn’t lead to the increased pathologization of people who are reacting to this environment in a way that is considered “wrong.”
“We don’t blame kids for having multiple ear infections or needing their tonsils out. We don’t stigmatize them for that,” and we shouldn’t stigmatize them for their mental health challenges, she told Changing America.
It’s not that those struggling are overly sensitive or soft, Klose explained: “It’s really about the way human brains work and develop.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.