It’s tempting to blame the pandemic for the dizzying rates of mental health concerns among American teens. We are all familiar with the impact Covid is having on our lives, and the disruption it continues to cause in the lives of young people. Kids witnessed vehement disagreements between neighbors, friends, and family over the decisions that had to be made in response to the pandemic, and felt the stress at home as parents faced economic and work changes, all without many of their usual support systems.
However, rates of mental illness among children and adolescents have been steadily rising throughout the last decade. In 2019, nearly 20% of deaths in the 10-24 age group were suicides and nearly 16% of high schoolers had made a suicide plan. Even back in 2019, more than one in three teens suffered persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Covid may have thrown gasoline on this particular fire, but make no mistake, the fire was already burning.
Some groups have been disproportionately affected by this crisis, as with so many others. Risk is increased by factors that include, but are not limited to, gender, race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, social supports, and family history.
I don’t think it has ever been easy to be a teenager. As the brain matures it starts to wrestle with a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the world, and of the self. Today’s teenagers face nearly inescapable social forces, from the carefully curated lives influencers display on social media, to anonymous bullying from strangers on the internet, to the always-on news cycle that shows them violence and disaster 24 hours a day. However, there is a lot more speculation on what is behind the rise in mental distress in our teens than there is actual science.
Fortunately, there is some research to guide us moving forward. As always, prevention is key. We can bring wellness initiatives to young people, so they can build skills to help them navigate difficult situations and manage challenging emotions. We can protect them from bullying and discrimination. Parents can attend to their own mental health and roll model healthy self care. We can fund our schools adequately to be the safety nets we expect them to be for our children and families.
Those who are already facing moderate or severe mental health issues, whether children, teens, or adults, need treatment. Access to that treatment needs to improve, and we as a society need to reject the stigma around seeking those services. Mental health treatment is as essential as cancer treatment.
There is no quick fix for this challenge, but our youth need us to rise to meet it.
Debra Johnson, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. Follow The Prairie Doc® at www.prairiedoc.org and on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc® a medical Q&A show providing health information based on science, built on trust for 21 Seasons, streaming live on Facebook most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.