Mental Health Epidemic Among Youth
Over the last decade, mental health among youth has deteriorated. Unfortunately, while adolescent mental health was already at a very low point, a number of recent social issues – the pandemic, an uptick in school shootings, a reckoning on racial justice, the climate crisis, and a divisive political landscape – have really intensified this downward trend.
The U.S. Surgeon General recently came out with new figures that are staggering. Compared with 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021. Depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youths experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% suffering anxiety symptoms.
“We were in a hole and now we just dug it a little bit deeper,” said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer for the American Psychological Association (APA). “Suicide already was the second leading cause of death for children. We had already seen pretty high levels of substance use, depression and violent behavior. But the pandemic has been a perfect storm of a stressor, which we know leads to really notable increases in psychological symptoms among kids. We’re seeing a real reduction in emotional intimacy among kids because so much of their communication is now electronic.”
For young people across the country, the pandemic has rocked “normal life” and stolen milestone events. The pandemic moved classrooms online, cancelled events, reduced social circles, and prevented travel and educational opportunities, all of which have had a negative impact on young people’s dreams and expectations. As a result, students across the country share a lack of motivation, a feeling of loneliness, and pure exhaustion from uncertainty. A recent survey of Americans age 13-24 conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that the pandemic has made their education, career goals and social lives more difficult.
More people seeking help has strained the ability of practitioners to provide treatment. While the pandemic allowed practitioners to provide services remotely, demand increased at a faster pace. An APA survey from October 2021 found that waiting lists and referrals have nearly doubled, while 41% of psychologists reported being unable to treat all of their patients. Compared with last year, the number of psychologists reporting an increase in demand for anxiety treatment rose by 10% and for depression treatment by 12%.
What Parents Can Do
These statistics and trends are scary, and the problems can feel overwhelming. However, there are ways that parents can help their teens’ mental health. Try these tips:
- Be aware of the warning signs of depression, suicide, and anxiety. If you see these signs, seek professional help for your teen. If there are waiting lists for treatment, then add your name to the list, but keep checking around to see if there are more readily available options. Contact your pediatrician to see if they are able to expedite the process.
- Be a good role model in taking care of yourself and prioritizing your mental health. Youth are much more likely to use healthy coping skills when they see their parents taking care of their mental health in positive ways.
- Teach your children positive ways to manage stress. Make a list of relaxing activities and encourage your teen to pick a couple to try to see which ones work for them personally. Examples are exercise, listening to music, spending time in nature, stretching or yoga, deep breathing, journaling, spending time with a pet, meditation, enjoying a hobby, watching funny videos, reading, or getting creative by painting, drawing, coloring, dancing, taking photographs, or other artistic endeavors.
- Suggest teens limit overall social media use. Give your teen the facts about how social media negatively impacts our mental health, and then make a family challenge (with a reward at the end) for everyone to reduce their social media by a certain amount. Many phones offer weekly reports on screen time amounts to keep everyone accountable.
- Encourage youth to engage in safe social activities. Spending time with people face to face, even with a mask on, will help protect your teen against depression. In addition, consider establishing sit-down family dinners a few times a week, suggesting an extracurricular activity or class, or helping your teen find a part-time job or community service activity.
- Encourage healthy sleep patterns. Set a “phone curfew” for the entire family (parents need to role model this behavior) so that everyone discontinues phone use within one hour of bedtime. Establish charging stations for the night outside the bedrooms. This will limit screen light before bed, encourage an earlier bedtime, and prevent sleep interruption. Getting a full night’s sleep (7 to 9 hours) has been proven to significantly improve our mental health.