When most adults envision the health risks facing teenagers in the United States, they may think of issues like binge drinking, teen pregnancy, and smoking cigarettes. That’s because public health messaging puts these issues at the forefront of the national stage. However, each of those behaviors has seen a significant decrease among U.S. teens while mental health among this population is declining rapidly. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has declared a devastating mental health crisis among adolescents, which is driven by a complex array of factors.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the mental health crisis facing America’s adolescents, which has seen an increasing number of teens struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidality.
If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, find free, confidential support 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
A Changing Landscape for Teens
The realities of being a teenager in the United States have changed dramatically over the last several decades. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 13% of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode in 2019. Moreover, suicide rates and emergency visits resulting from self-harm have also seen significant increases for individuals from ages 10-24. Meanwhile, the numbers of adolescents who have used marijuana, recently consumed alcohol, tried cigarettes, or engaged in sexual activity are falling. In other words, a new public health crisis is facing America’s teens, and the social landscape has yet to catch up with this trend.
Contributing Factors for the Mental Health Crisis
Discovering the reasons behind this mental health crisis is an ongoing process. However, there are some factors that have been linked to the struggle that today’s teens are facing.
- Physiological Factors – Adolescence begins at puberty, which is beginning at earlier and earlier ages. In 1990, the average onset of puberty for girls was age 14. Today, it is age 12. When adolescents enter puberty, not only do they face an onslaught of new physical changes in their bodies; they also have rapidly changing brain development. They become more sensitive to social information and hierarchical structures without having developed coping mechanisms in the parts of the brain that regulate self-control.
- Media Exposure – At the same age that adolescents are becoming hypersensitive to social input, many of them are also getting their first smartphones, which expose them to an endless array of media and information, including social media platforms. Still, it is important to avoid pinning the entirety of the blame for mental health issues on social media. The effects of social media vary among individuals, but the modern landscape of digital connectivity does tend to drive teens away from in-person interactions. More of the social landscape takes place online, which results in feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Lack of Sleep – Increased screen time paired with demanding schedules creates a lack of sleep for modern teens, which only worsens mental health issues. Sleep is what allows the brain to process information and reset. Without adequate sleep—meaning 8-10 hours per night for 13-18 year olds—decision making becomes more impulsive, anxiety worsens, and cognitive abilities decline.
What Can Be Done?
As a parent, it is easy to feel hopeless against the external pressures your child is facing. Still, there are steps you can take to support your child’s mental health and even prevent issues like anxiety and depression. Being upfront about these issues from an early age is an important start. In the same way you might have honest conversations with your child about the dangers of drugs or alcohol, it’s important to help them understand the realities of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Moreover, your children should understand that they can come to you for help and support without judgment. Seeking professional help is another step that can provide your child with the coping mechanisms they need to manage their emotions and deal with societal pressures.
MeMD can connect you to a qualified adolescent therapist to work with your child. Parents can schedule 50-minute visits for children from ages 10-17, which take place via smartphone or computer, allowing kids and teens to access the mental and emotional support they need from a safe, private environment where they feel most comfortable.