Kids are unwell. Worse than ever recorded, according to two new reports tracing depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens. There is a frantic search for ways to stop kids from hurting. But if we want to make any lasting difference, it is us, the adults, who need an intervention.
Solutions start with compassionate, radical honesty: American kids are unwell because American society is unwell. The systems and social media making teenagers sad, angry and afraid today were shaped in part by adults who grew up sad, angry and afraid themselves.
First, the kids. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data from the first Youth Risk Behavior Survey collected across the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It is devastating. Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they had seriously considered suicide. Teen girls reported the highest ever levels of sexual violence, sadness and hopelessness. Another new study based on pre-pandemic data from Iowa raises alarm about bullying and suicide. Rates of bullying were increasing in the state even in 2018, and researchers at Drake University found some forms of it significantly correlated with feeling sad or hopeless and attempting suicide. This echoes CDC findings that young people who are frequently bullied or who bully others are more likely to think about, attempt or commit suicide.
Data on the teen mental health crisis is useful, but surveys and headlines can be like fireworks that punch fleeting shapes in the sky. An Instagram logo: social media! A surgical mask: the lockdown! We need to discern the flares without being blinded by them. Yes, social media delivers concentrated, addictive stress to developing minds that were held captive by the pandemic. No, logging off TikTok and returning to school will not fix the problem — because each teen’s life ricochets off family, friends and neighbors with struggles of their own in a polity with troubles of its own.
So as not to present a problem without a fix, the CDC says schools can make a profound difference. “Increasing the sense among all students that they are cared for, supported, and belong at school” is one, as is growing access to mental health and substance use prevention services for kids and their families and health education classes to teach teens to manage their boundaries and emotions and to ask for help. These positive practices build resilience.
Before then, though, can we acknowledge the weight this puts on underpaid teachers and part-time counselors and nurses? People who, if they haven’t already burned out, are practicing active-shooter drills, catching students up on 18 months of lost learning and ensuring kids have enough food to concentrate in class. A school’s four walls cannot hold back the trauma of society as well as, perhaps, the personal nightmare waiting for kids at home.
Which brings us to the adults. One in 5 — nearly 53 million people — had a mental illness in 2020, ranging from anxiety to depression to bipolar disorder. Nearly 28 million adults had an alcohol use disorder. As many as 3 in 100 people will have a psychotic episode in their lives. We are running companies and the country, serving time and raising families, and we, too, need a sense that we are cared for, supported and belong.
It can be hard for adults to believe that, especially if our own childhoods suggested otherwise. As kids, 61 percent of adults in the United States experienced abuse or neglect, grew up with poverty, hunger, violence or substance abuse, experienced gender-based discrimination and racism or lost a parent to divorce or death. These stressors contribute to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance misuse down the line.
If not you, then someone you know is doing their best to stitch up those invisible wounds.
Preventing adverse experiences in childhood could reduce the number of adults with depression by as much as 44 percent, according to the CDC. Mourn this number for those whose traumas weren’t prevented and rejoice that there is hope. Here’s more hope: Brains wired by toxic stress, such as the sexual violence that 1 in 10 teen girls are facing today, have the ability to essentially heal when exposed to positive experiences. Good nutrition, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices all help. Adults as well as children have neuroplasticity, and family resilience and connection are positive influences.
A person’s mental health is not an immaculate conception of just one brain, body or life. Teen suicide might drop and anxiety might improve as more school programs are funded and kids limit their screen time. But these will be temporary fixes for this generation and the next unless we stop systemically bullying ourselves and each other and find ways to show collective care.