Tips for Addressing the Significant Increases in Teen Girl’s Sadness and Hopelessness

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of their Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey, which has been conducted every other year for three decades, includes responses from 17,232 U.S. high school students and measures adolescent health and well-being. Collected in fall 2021, these survey responses represent the first data collected by CDC since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, while a few measures of teen health and well-being showed improvement (declines in risky sexual behavior and substance use), most other indicators worsened significantly. Perhaps the most startling change was in mental health. Poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased for nearly all groups of youth, but the rates for teen girls are especially alarming.

  • More than 40% of all teenagers said that they had felt so sad or hopeless within the past year that they were unable to do their regular activities, such as schoolwork or sports, for at least two weeks.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 teen girls (57%) said they felt “persistently sad or hopeless.” That is double the rate for teen boys (29%) and is the highest rate in a decade.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls said they have seriously considered suicide, a 60 percent rise in the past decade.
  • At least 52% of teenagers who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning said they struggled with mental health and more than 1 in 5 attempted suicide in the past year.

“America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma,” the CDC said. The reasons girls are in crisis are likely complex, and may vary by race, ethnicity, class and culture. While the survey did not ask for the reasons for their hopelessness, high school girls are already speaking out to the media, describing stresses that started before the pandemic — growing up in a social media culture, impossible beauty standards, online hate, academic pressure, economic difficulties, self-doubt and sexual violence. The isolation and upheaval of the pandemic made it tougher still.

What Parents Can Do

If you think your teen might be struggling with sadness:

  • Talk with them. Show extra love and support. Let them know you care and want to hear what they’re going through. Don’t try to talk your teen out of depression, even if their feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. You’ll do the most good by simply letting your teen know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally. If your teen won’t open up to you, consider turning to a trusted third party: a school counselor, favorite teacher, or a mental health professional. The important thing is to get them talking to someone.
  • Believe them. If and when your teen talks to you, do not dismiss their concerns or imply that they are being dramatic or seeking attention. Especially listen to and believe girls. With so many girls falling victim to violence, dating abuse, or sexual harassment, it’s important that we don’t doubt their experiences. Simply acknowledging their pain and sadness can go a long way in making them feel understood and supported.
  • Take them to see their doctor and a mental health therapist. Set up a visit with your teen’s doctor to check for depression. Medical providers also can check for other health issues that might be causing your teen’s symptoms. They can explain what you can do to help your teen and also make recommendations for a mental health therapist. A good therapist can help your teen develop positive coping skills, disrupt destructive or distorted thought processes, and find healthy ways to adapt to difficult life circumstances.
  • Encourage good habits. Healthy eating, getting enough sleep, limiting social media, and good stress management all help youth feel better. Role model healthy behaviors for your teen and teach youth how these habits improve our mood.
  • Encourage connection. Depressed teens tend to withdraw from their friends and the activities they used to enjoy. But isolation only makes depression worse, so do what you can to help your teen reconnect. Encourage them to go out with friends or invite friends over. Participate in activities that involve other families and give your child an opportunity to meet and connect with other kids. Suggest activities—such as sports, after-school clubs, or an art, dance, or music class—that take advantage of your teen’s interests and talents. While your teen may lack motivation and interest at first, as they reengage with the world, they should start to feel better and regain their enthusiasm.

Final Thoughts…

We don’t know the underlying causes for these large jumps in anxiety and depression, but it’s reasonable to assume that contributing factors could include social media, high expectations, helicopter parenting, and the pandemic. In addition, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed significant increases in violence against teen girls, which could also be contributing to the increase in hopelessness. Next week’s blog will discuss the findings in the report about violence and how parents can help.

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