New data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention was released earlier this year, and the statistics are devastating. Their newest study – Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 – found that mental health conditions in high school students are worse than ever before. Among student demographics, teenage girls and LGBQ+ youth were found to be experiencing record levels of sadness and suicide risk.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) monitors the health behaviors and experiences of adolescents in the United States over a ten-year period. It looks specifically at trends relating to sexual behaviors, substance abuse, violent experiences, and poor mental health in teens.
In some of these categories, improvements have been made. For example, modern teenagers are engaging in less risky, sexual behaviors than in years past, and the rate of adolescent substance use has declined. However, almost all other indicators of health and well-being in the report, the CDC explains, have “worsened significantly.” Violence in schools and among teens has increased. Youth are dealing with mental health crises, even more frequently than we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, at the same time, suicide attempts are rising exponentially among high school students.
Let’s explore the results more, and see how we can stop the numbers from climbing.
Teenagers are Experiencing Increased Feelings of Sadness and Hopelessness.
Mental health conditions have continued to worsen each year over the past decade. And while the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the rise of these issues, the rates of poor mental health, sadness, and suicide have been climbing for years before. Now, the numbers are striking.
According to the latest CDC data, about 42 percent of high school students in the U.S. have felt so sad, or so hopeless, that they could not engage with regular activities for at least two weeks. This is more than a 60 percent increase from the year 2009. These feelings have been so severe, teens report, that they could not do things like go to school, attend social events, or carry out daily tasks. On top of this, close to 30 percent of high school students in the survey admitted to experiencing “poor mental health.”
These feelings are not only markers for depressive symptoms, but they have the potential to lead to long-term consequences. As the CDC explains, “Poor mental health can result in serious negative outcomes for the health and development of adolescents, which can last into adulthood.” For this reason, it is important to address mental health issues as soon as they are spotted in teens.
A Record-Breaking Number of Teen Girls are Experiencing Poor Mental Health.
Teenage girls are amongst the groups struggling most with their mental health. As of 2021, an estimated 60 percent of (about 3 in every 5) teenage girls reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. This is compared to the 29 percent of teen boys who reported feeling the same.
More than 1 in 4 of these teen girls (30 percent) also considered attempting suicide, and 24 percent went forward to make a suicide plan. Various factors have caused these girls to consider suicide, including depression, trauma or abuse, and substance use. About 1 in 5 teen girls today have experienced sexual abuse and almost 14 percent have been forced to have sex. This trauma can linger with them, causing them to self-medicate with substances of abuse (rates of alcohol use are rising among female students) and consider self-harm or suicide.
The CDC writes, devastatingly, “Across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, female students are faring more poorly than male students. These differences, and the rates at which female students are reporting such negative experiences, are stark.”
LGBT+ Youth are Suffering at a High Risk of Attempting Suicide.
Perhaps the demographic most affected by mental health issues today are those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or as another non-heterosexual identity (LGBQ+). This is particularly true for young students (young adults and adolescents) who are still coming to understand their identities and develop confidence and self-worth.
According to this new data from the CDC, LGBQ+ students were more likely to experience all forms of violence in their lives, compared to their heterosexual peers. Potentially as a result of abuse and other violent traumas, LGBQ+ students were also more likely to use illicit drugs and alcohol, as well as experience poor mental health.
Specifically, close to 70 percent of LGBQ+ students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, and more than 50 percent reported poor mental health during the past 30 days. Almost 25 percent – that’s 1 in 4 teens – attempted suicide during the past year.
These statistics lead us to a harrowing reality: LGBQ+ youth are experiencing discrimination and issues with belonging, in turn affecting their mental health. The CDC survey found that LGBQ+ students and students who had any same-sex partners were more likely than their peers to miss school because of safety concerns. One-quarter of LGBQ+ youth were bullied at school, and even more were cyber-bullied.
Because of their increased use of all substances, in comparison to their peers, LGBQ+ students are also at greater risk of developing substance use disorders. The CDC reports that this population of students were more likely to have used illicit drugs, prescription opioids, alcohol, marijuana, and electronic vapes.
Suicide Risk is Increasingly Alarming Among Teens.
When mental health concerns become more widespread, so too does the risk of suicide. Among teenagers, close to 1 in 4 teens (22 percent) seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021. This is up from 16 percent just the decade prior.
Not only this, but more teenagers are taking action on suicide ideation. An estimated 18 percent of high school students surveyed went ahead and made a suicide plan, and 10 percent actually attempted suicide. These numbers, as described above, were highest among LGBQ+ youth and female students. 10 percent of teenage girls and more than 20 percent of LGBQ+ students attempted suicide.
This is an incredibly scary time for teenagers and parents alike, and we must find ways to help young people before they get to this point.
Many Teenagers No Longer Feel Safe in Schools.
When considering the mental health and suicide rates among teenagers today, many of us must ask the question: “Why?” Why is there a mental health crisis among youth?
There are many factors contributing to poor mental health among teenagers, as we detailed in a recent article here. These include, but are not limited to, an increase in social media use, lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a spike in violent events, from our schools to our streets.
The CDC sheds light on this last point in their recent YRBS research. According to the latest data, the percentage of students who missed school because of safety concerns increased, with 9 percent of teens reporting missing school due to feeling unsafe during 2021. The populations most affected are echoed again: 10 percent of female students felt unsafe and skipped school, while a concerning 14 percent of LGBQ+ students reported the same. LGBQ+ students were found to be twice as likely to skip school due to safety concerns than their heterosexual peers.
Sexual violence among teens has also increased in recent years, and once again, female students and LGBQ+ students were most likely to feel those affects. Unfortunately, 18 percent of female students were sexually abused in 2021 (compared to just 5 percent of male students), and 22 percent of LGBQ+ students were sexually assaulted, compared to 8 percent of heterosexual students.
When a person does not feel safe in an environment like school, where they spend 95 percent of their time, it will have an extremely negative impact on their mental health over time. The trauma of abuse can also be influential on the long-term health and trust of these young students.
As Debra Houry, the CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science, explains: “High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive.” She suggests that prevention programs in schools may be one way to do so.
What Can We Do to Help Teens with Their Mental Health?
School prevention programs and parent involvement are two major ways we can immediately help the mental health status of teenagers and young adults. This was found through the CDC’s evaluation of key protective factors for youth in 2021.
When teenagers are more connected with their parents, they are more likely to feel supported and less likely to engage in risky behaviors or commit suicide. Parents who know where their teenagers are, and who they are hanging out with, can be some of the greatest assets in promoting overall teen health. If you are a parent of an adolescent, having this level of connectedness is ever-important in ensuring their safety. You can establish this by having open, judgement-free conversations at home, by establishing a sense of trust, and by staying engaged in their activities and whereabouts.
Additionally, school connectedness can also play a major role in helping teenagers, especially at a time in which they do not feel safe in school. This is defined as feeling close to other peers at school. The CDC explains, “School connectedness, defined in this report as feeling close to people at school, has a long-lasting, protective impact for adolescents well into adulthood on almost all the behaviors and experiences included in this report. In 2021, female students, students of color, LGBQ+ students, and students who had any same-sex partners were least likely to feel connected at school, indicating less protection for these groups.”
As a result, the CDC is now calling on school faculty and administrators to implement strategies that promote connectedness among students, with an emphasis on reducing health disparities and helping certain demographics, like LGBQ+ students, feel safer in schools. On top of creating safe spaces for students in need, the CDC also talks about the importance of developing programs to ensure students receive (or are referred to) the mental health treatment they need and deserve.
Kathleen Ethier, CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health Director, states, “Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion… With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish.”
Do you have a son, daughter, or student who is struggling with mental health issues? Are you seeking support services to help them feel connected and safe? If you are seeking clinical advice or guidance on how to help a young person struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment facility specializing in the experiences of adolescents and young adults. We are just one call away, at 877-581-1793.