Understanding and Addressing the Worsening Youth Mental Health Crisis
By Lauren DeSouza- Master of Public Health, Simon Fraser Public Research University – Canada
Staff Research and Content Writer
© Copyright – SUD RECOVERY CENTERS – A Division of Genesis Behavioral Services, Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin – July 2023 – All rights reserved.
The number of adolescents reporting poor mental health in the US is increasing. Findings from the US Centers for Disease Control’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that youth have poorer mental health now than they did in 2011.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a biannual, nationwide survey that monitors health-related behaviors and experiences among students in grades 9 through 12. Understanding these behaviors is vital as they provide valuable insights into the development and future well-being of young people. For example, poor mental health in adolescence can carry through to challenges in adulthood including substance use and poor physical health. Thus, it is imperative to understand and address the concerning trend of worsening mental health among youth.
Image via Freepik
According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey:
- 1 in 3 teenagers reported having poor mental health
- 2 in 5 said they felt persistently sad or hopeless
- Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24
- 1 in 5 students seriously considered suicide
- 1 in 10 attempted suicide
Comparing the trends over time is even more concerning. Youth mental health is getting worse, not better. Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of students who said they felt persistently sad or hopeless increased from 28% to 42%. The number of students considering suicide increased from 16% to 22%.
Certain demographics are more at risk of experiencing poor mental health, including female students, LGBQ+ students, and students of color. Indicators of poor mental health among these groups have also been increasing since 2011, including the percentage of female students who considered, planned, and/or attempted suicide increased and the percentage of Black students who attempted suicide.
Why is youth mental health worsening?
Mental health is a product of our socioeconomic and cultural environments as well as our genetics. Factors such as identity, social connectedness, financial stability, and family status all impact mental health. Young people today face daunting challenges that no generation in recent history has had to contend with, from gun violence to growing economic uncertainty and climate change. These stressors have also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives in a way that no event in recent history has. Bernie Sanders notes in his op-ed in The Guardian that the loss of social connections, disruptions to daily life, grief, anxiety, and increased stress have all contributed to poorer mental health outcomes. The pandemic especially eroded social and school connectedness among young people by taking them out of a school setting, which are important protective factors for mental health. The pandemic also disrupted school-based services that provide a safety net for struggling families.
- Economic anxiety
The pandemic also worsened growing economic instability across the US. Millions of people lost their jobs due to lockdowns and household financial insecurity rose. When parents are stressed about finances, their children’s mental health is affected as well. The continued economic uncertainty is also lending itself to anxiety among youth about an unaffordable future, whether it be rising education, housing, or healthcare costs.
- Screen time and social media
Excessive screen time, particularly on social media platforms, has been linked to increased mental health issues among youth. Social media can breed insecurities, low self-esteem, and fuel comparison, especially when it comes to body image, impacting mental well-being.
- Climate change
The existential threat of climate disaster is a well-known contributor to poor mental health among youth. Young people are worried about the state of the planet and what it means for their futures and their children’s futures. Climate anxiety can manifest as depression and hopelessness as evidenced by the Youth Risk Behaviors Survey.
- Gun violence
Finally, the threat of gun violence is contributing to feelings of anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, particularly among school-aged youth. As of May 2023, there had been more mass shootings in the US than the number of days in the year that had elapsed. Youth must live with the omnipresent threat of school shootings or other forms of gun violence in their lives, which is eroding their mental health.
What needs to be done to improve youth mental health?
Youth mental health is multifaceted and connected to a broad range of socioeconomic and cultural factors. In order to improve mental health, we must address the wider environment within which youth are situated. For example, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggests that school and family connectedness are important protective factors to improve mental health. Youth who feel connected and supported by their home and school environments have stronger mental health and decreased risk of mental illness and suicidal thinking.
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Schools can support students’ mental health by integrating community-based services and providing accessible, relevant, and culturally appropriate health education. Staff and students should be taught about the services available to youth and trained in how to access them. Moreover, schools should provide mental health services or establish referral systems to connect youth to community sources of care.
Health care providers can support youth mental health by facilitating connections between parents and youth. For example, health care providers should ask adolescents about family relationships and school experiences as a part of routine health screenings. They should also encourage positive parenting practices where possible, prompting parents to play active roles in their children’s lives. Providers can also engage parents in discussions about how to connect with their children, communicate effectively, and monitor activities and health behaviors. Finally, it is important for health care providers to educate parents and youth about adolescent development and health risks, especially adolescent mental health.
It is important to note that certain groups experience school and family connectedness more than others. Marginalized groups including those of non-white ethnicities and members of the LGBQ+ communities are less likely to experience social connectedness. Youth from disadvantaged or marginalized groups may have less stable housing or parents with less time to be present, contributing to a lack of family connectedness. Thus, these groups must be prioritized in interventions designed to increase connectedness.
What are the key takeaways?
- 1 in 3 teenagers in the US reports having poor mental health.
- Youth mental health has worsened significantly over the past decade. Young people are more likely to report feeling sad or hopeless now than they were in 2011.
- Youth from marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBQ+ youth, are more likely to experience poor mental health.
- Factors contributing to the youth mental health crisis include the pandemic, economic stress, social media, climate change, and gun violence.
- Addressing school and family connectedness can help improve youth mental health.
- Health care providers can support youth by facilitating relationships and connectedness between parents and youth.
Sanders, Bernie. June 13, 2023. America is facing a mental health crisis. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jun/13/mental-health-crisis-young-people-bernie-sanders
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescent and School Health: Mental Health. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/mental-health/index.htm#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20more%20than%204,%25)%20experienced%20poor%20mental%20health.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023. Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBS_Data-Summary-Trends_Report2023_508.pdf