Did you know that we are in the midst of a national youth mental health crisis?
In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory to draw attention to this devastating public health emergency. His message came on the heels of a national declaration in October, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association.
Both declarations are meant to raise awareness of the same issue: The number of youth struggling with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide have reached new, all-time highs. In fact, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, just following unintentional injuries. In 2020, over half (51%) of teens reported very frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm.
While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this mental health crisis, these trends are not particularly new. The rates of mental health disorders among teens and young adults have been climbing for years. According to a recent report from Mental Health America (MHA):
- The rate of children’s emergency department visits for deliberate self-harm increased 329% between the years 2007 and 2016.
- The percentage of youth experiencing a major depressive episode (MDE) doubled between 2009 and 2019.
- Deaths by suicide among youth increased over 30% during a recent three-year period, between 2007 and 2016.
Then, once the pandemic hit, mental health among youth worsened. The rate of children’s visits to the emergency room for mental health conditions increased 31% when comparing March to October 2020 with the same period in 2019.
In the full year of 2020, nearly one million youth between the ages of 11 and 17 took a mental health screening through the MHA. This means one million adolescents sought out mental health care and support in 2020, an increase of 628% when compared to 2019. This isn’t all.
Using those screenings, Mental Health America found that youth are more likely than any other age group to score for moderate-to-severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. Of those who completed an anxiety screening, 84% of youth were found to have symptoms of moderate-to-severe anxiety (7% higher than the rate of adults). Of those who took a screening for depression, 91% of youth scored with symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression (9% higher than the rate of adults).
Considering these harrowing statistics, we are left wondering, “Why now?” Why are we amidst a youth mental health crisis, and what can we – as parents, as educators, as clinicians – do about it?
The Effects of COVID-19 on Youth Mental Health
There is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in the rising rates of mental health issues among teens and young adults, and our population as a whole. Since 2020, we have been forced to distance from loved ones, to stay home and quarantine, and to face constant worry about a virus that, frankly, we are still learning about. Many of us are facing fears of getting sick, of spreading the virus to others, and of losing friends and family. On top of this, many of us are feeling lonely, withdrawn, and even afraid of socialization.
These feelings, perhaps, have affected youth the most.
Adolescents and young adults are inherently social beings. When children enter adolescence, they start preparing to establish their identity, independence, and place in the world. They experience changes in their brain, emotions, and bodies, all of which are designed to prime them to take on more complex social roles as they grow. As such, adolescents focus more on building relationships with peers and mentors. They do not prioritize time with family, but rather, seek out social approval from friends. High school, in particular, is a time to explore these relationships and develop a social identity.
Peer influence is a naturally important piece of development. It enables adolescents to foster a sense of self-identity, build meaningful friendships, as well as build cognitive abilities. In fact, it is in adolescence that we really develop the brain areas involved in social perception and cognition. Adolescents begin learning how to understand other people’s perspectives, and how to reflect on their own. Many adolescents also require peer interactions to grow their self-esteem and develop their interests, values, and attitudes. When that interaction is taken away, life becomes harder. Adolescents struggle.
On top of a heightened period for social development, adolescence is also a period of vulnerability to mental health disorders. In fact, 75% of adults who have a mental health condition report first experiencing symptoms before the age of 24.
Let’s combine this all together. Adolescents need social interactions to develop. They also are at risk for mental health disorders. When COVID-19 forced adolescents to stay home from school, to take classes online, to miss their homecoming dance or their prom, to not participate in school sports and activities – their mental health undoubtedly suffered. Many adolescents and young adults are still suffering.
Now as we near the end of this pandemic, and we return to in-person classes and social settings, many children, teenagers, and young adults are still facing issues with their mental health. While we want to believe that the transition back to “normal” life will be easy for teens, it’s far from it. These children, teens, and young adults have all missed out on a year of social skills development. Many do not know how to navigate the interactions – let alone the hallways – now that they are back in school. As a result, school districts are reporting higher instances of self-harm, as well as more fights between students. In addition, many students are struggling academically, as the past years were made “easier” due to unprecedented circumstances. The catching up has been particularly hard, and created extra stress for students returning to school, according to interviews with NPR.
Other Causes of the Youth Mental Health Crisis
You may be wondering, why are teenagers and young adults more vulnerable to mental health problems? And, why are seeing these heightened issues now? What else is contributing?
There are many other causes of mental health problems in youth, including a mix of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Many of these influences are well-known and have been studied over the years. However, of late, research shows that there are new factors potentially contributing to rising mental health concerns among youth, such as:
- A greater willingness to discuss mental health concerns
- The growing use of digital media
- Increasing academic pressure among youth
- Early drug and alcohol abuse
- Pressing, external stressors such as racism and racial inequity, climate change, gun violence, as well as the coronavirus pandemic
Imagine being a teenager or young adult today. You have already missed out on major, milestone social events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You have not met, or are only just getting to know, your classmates in person after years of virtual learning. You have been bouncing between an in-person and online classroom, and your grades may be falling as a result. On top of this all, the world is spiraling around you. You have witnessed one of the most contested presidential elections in recent history. You have experienced, directly or indirectly, hate against the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. And every day, you scroll your phone only to find images of people who you dream of looking or living like. You are constantly comparing yourself to others on social media, and it’s diminishing your self-esteem as a result. All of this becomes exhausting over time.
It is no wonder teens and young adults are experiencing more issues with substance use and mental health than ever before. The question now is, what can we do about it?
What Parents Can Do to Protect Youth’s Mental Health
Whether you are a parent, another family member, teacher, clinician, caregiver, or close friend, there are steps you can take to help your loved one improve their mental health. There are also steps you can take to prevent long-term mental health problems in your child.
If you are a parent and concerned about your child’s mental health, you should aim to:
- Be the best role model you can possibly be for your child. This involves taking care of your own mental health and physical well-being. Young people often learn and adapt behaviors from what they see around them, so practicing good habits is important in the home. This also includes eating healthy, getting enough sleep, taking breaks, maintaining a routine, going to the doctor, staying connected to loved ones, and stepping away from technology from time to time.
- Have conversations about mental health. Being open about mental health – and encouraging these conversations at home – can help reduce the stigma and the shame associated with mental illness. You can help normalize these topics and let your child know it’s okay to talk about them. More importantly, it’s okay to ask for help if they are struggling.
- Help your child develop strong, safe, and supportive relationships with you and other adults. As cited in the Surgeon General’s Report, “Research shows that the most important thing a child needs to be resilient is a stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.” By staying involved in your child’s life, showing them love and acceptance, listening to them, and encouraging them to be themselves, you can set them up for long-term success and health.
- Encourage your child to have healthy, social relationships with peers. As noted above, youth are in a critical period of social development. They thrive on interactions with their peers, and use those relationships to form an identity. Encourage them to develop healthy, comfortable, and safe friendships with others. At the same time, be sure to talk to your child about peer pressure and how to handle it when it arises. Help your child feel comfortable expressing their needs, values, and boundaries in these situations.
- Minimize negative influences in your child’s life. In line with the above sentiment, be sure to talk to your child about negative influences like drugs, alcohol, and peer-pressuring friends. Talk to your child about the dangers of substance abuse, and how that can affect their physical and mental health. By preventing early substance use in your teen, you can help to prevent long-term mental health issues. Statistics show that substance use often leads to mental health disorders, and vice versa.
- Reduce access to negative influences. As discussed early in this article, there is a growing number of teens experiencing thoughts of self-harm and suicide. Therefore, as a parent, it’s important to limit access to potentially dangerous items. This includes prescription medications and firearms. Be sure these are properly stored and locked up, or disposed of appropriately.
- Ensure your child has regular doctor’s visits. No matter your child’s age, going to regular doctor’s visits can be important to monitor their health – physically and mentally. A healthcare practitioner can help diagnose and treat mental and physical illnesses, as well as give you advice regarding any health concerns you might have.
- Monitor your child’s time spent online. While technology and social media can help your child stay connected with friends, it can also create room for more negative experiences like being cyberbullied, finding harmful information, or comparing oneself to others and causing issues with self-esteem. Keep tabs on your child’s screen time and have open conversations about these online experiences.
- Look out for warning signs of distress and seek help when needed. There are many signs and indicators of mental health disorders in youth. These issues can display as irritability and anger, withdrawal from loved ones, drops in grades, changes in eating patterns, social anxieties, or heightened risk-taking, to name a few. If you notice concerning changes with your teen, be sure to ask questions and let them know it’s okay to ask for help. As a family member, do not be afraid to ask for help, too. Talk to your child’s doctor, school nurse, counselor, or another professional about getting help for your teen.
If you do not know where to turn, Turnbridge is here for you. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health and substance use disorder treatment center, designated for teenagers and young adults. We can listen to your needs and help you determine the best next steps for your son or daughter.
We are amidst a mental health youth crisis, and numbers are escalating even as youth start to go back to school and re-integrate with the world. If you have concerns about a loved one or someone you know, please do not hesitate to seek professional help. Early intervention for mental health disorders can be critical for the long-term success and well-being of youth. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more. You can also read the Surgeon General’s Advisory for more advice on tackling this crisis.