Released early last month, a groundbreaking CDC study on teenage mental health made countless news headlines. Citing data recorded from 2021, the study reported a 60% increase in “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” since 2011 among high school girls. This isn’t the only time that teen mental health has been in the news recently, and as we experience this most recent wave of coverage, the lack of progress becomes increasingly glaring. There is a clear gap between the urgency expressed in understanding why teens are struggling and any meaningful action to address those struggles. It is crucial that public policy begins to reflect the reality of the situation that is described in the media.
Professionals have long been concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the emotional and mental well-being of children and adolescents who suffered from isolation during lockdown. Of course, the pandemic has been difficult for people of all ages. Yet, adults had more control over the home environment, whereas children and teenagers exploring their independence lacked this, adding to the feeling of confinement.
So, this dramatic decline in mental health among teenagers should certainly be attributed, at least partially, to the pandemic, quarantine, online school, and a host of other changes thrust upon the kids of this era. But frankly, I think we’ve given this subject enough of our energy and thought. COVID-19’s impact on our world and well-being is a secret to no one. At this point, continuing to rehash this impact wastes time that could be better used to confront the weight COVID placed on the shoulders of adolescents.
Smartphones are often the second-most blamed contribution to the mental health crisis in the media. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok — comparison, the thief of joy. Again, the internet is undoubtedly part of the problem. The constant pressure to impress, the non-stop flow of information, and the inherently addictive nature of the algorithm have already been proven detrimental to so many aspects of well-being. Yes, social media is probably making kids depressed, particularly girls who tend to face more difficulties with insecurity about appearance and body image. And yet, I think this is another topic that’s been exhausted by medical professionals, the media, and everyone else who seeks to understand the enigma of the teenager.
Current events tend to receive some blame for how our teens are doing as well, be it school shootings (terrifying and all too real), the political climate (more divisive than it used to be and more nihilistic), or climate change (once again, terrifying and all too real). Climate anxiety is a very real thing. And it certainly can’t be good for a person to live through one school shooting, and then live through another one.
It’s clear that there isn’t one correct answer or one explicit problem that can point us in the direction of one specific solution. In addition, different teens will be impacted by different events. What does the mental health of a girl who survived Sandy Hook look like? What about a girl who’s never been in a school shooting, but is constantly fed media and content on the subject? A girl who just attempted suicide — did social media drive her there? Was it loneliness?
As a recent teen girl, I think it’s time to stop asking these questions.
After being brutally adjacent to a disproportionate amount of life-threatening mental health crises among people my age, the imperativeness here is all too clear to me.
It is evident that this is a group that cannot wait for professionals to debate and parse through the blame game. Action — on mental health resources in public schools, on educating parents, on mental health care — must become a priority.
What might this look like? First, the mental health of society’s youngest must be seen as an investment. The state of Texas has a $33 billion surplus this fiscal year. Choosing to allocate funds like this to our public schools, counselors, educational resources, and more positive educational environments would go a long way. A similar need for funding lies in state mental hospitals and other facilities. Public officials should consider teenage mental health an utmost priority — as it quite literally translates to whether this generation will survive — and then spend government money accordingly.
Additionally, and most simply, there is a dire need for open conversation. Stigma leads to a lack of availability of factual information for those who may be able to care for teenagers in need – parents, educators, etc. Schools, and even other places frequented by teens, should provide access to information on what to do and who to go to if you’re in crisis. Educational materials should become more readily available and in the public eye, so they are accessed by parents and those close to teenagers. Communities shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the critical and dangerous nature of the current moment — honesty can promote action. This is true for public figures and politicians as well who should speak openly, consistently, and urgently about the need for change.
Experts and those who report on them need to stop acting surprised when there is new evidence of a crisis among our teen girls. We’ve been waiting for you to notice, and we continue to wait for you to do something meaningful about it.
From The New York Times, Feb. 13: Teen girls report record levels of sadness, CDC finds.
From NBC News, Feb. 13: CDC says teen girls are caught in an extreme wave of sadness and violence.
From PBS, Feb. 28: There’s a mental health crisis among teen girls. From The Atlantic, Feb. 16:America’s teenage girls are not okay.
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