A new survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed a sharp decline in the mental health of teens over the past year. The survey found that nearly half of adolescents reported consistently feeling sad or hopeless to the point of disrupting their usual activities. Even more disturbingly, 47 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens reported they had “seriously considered committing suicide” over the past twelve months.
To conduct the survey, researchers collected data on the behaviors and experiences of 7,705 high school students across the United States between January and June of 2021. Kathleen Ethier of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what was already a downward trend in teen mental health over the last several years.
The survey also revealed just how much more difficult this climate is for queer teens, teens of color, and adolescent girls. Asian, Black, and multiracial students reported more experiences of racism in school, which was directly correlated with poorer mental health. Researchers believe that adolescent girls may be experiencing impacts to their mental health in part because of increased time on social media, where they are frequently exposed to negative messaging and unrealistic beauty standards.
Ethier recommends that schools make efforts to increase social connectedness for their students. The research shows that young people who feel connected to others at their school have better mental health outcomes later in life. To foster that connection, schools can institute anti-bullying policies, put more resources into classroom management, and support their more vulnerable students like LGBTQ+ and Black teens.
To support the teens in your life, here are some steps to take:
Know the signs
It’s something no one wants to think about, but every parent should be familiar with the signs that your teens is struggling with their mental health, and what to do if the signs are there. Also be aware of the signs your teen could be having suicidal thoughts or ideations. Create a list of national and local mental health crisis numbers to post in a common area of your home—then you can share the list with your teen, and even start taking the steps below while they enter the numbers in their phone’s contact list.
It might seem harder as our kids get older, but it’s important to stay connected. That way they’re more likely to tell you what’s going on in their lives, and they’ll be more open when you have a topic you need to discuss. To start, try one of the check-in questions below to find out how your child is doing.
Prepare them for tough times
No one has a crystal ball to see the future, but there are some typical teen troubles that are worth discussing with your child before they come up. Luckily, we have specific scripts that can help you figure out what to say! As Ethier points out, social connectedness is critical to boosting mental health, so consider conversations that will help them strengthen their social-emotional skills and relationships with others, such as:
- Healthy relationships and dating
- The dangers of vaping
- Toxic friendships
- Peer pressure
- Substance abuse and addiction
- How to handle divorce and separation
Teach coping skills
Older kids are likely to just roll their eyes if you try to suggest something like, “Let’s take five deep breaths together” when they’re upset. Soit’s time to learn some mindfulness techniques for teens or new coping strategies that are more age appropriate, so they cut through the resistance when your teen is clearly angry or anxious but just doesn’t want your help—or doesn’t want to admit they do.
If your teen’s mental health struggles could benefit from outside help, don’t hesitate to find a specialist. Even if you don’t have insurance, there are free and low-cost therapy options available.
We all want our kids to grow up feeling happy, safe, and secure. Adolescence is a tumultuous time under the best circumstances, and the pandemic has made it even harder for our kids. With some attention, openness, and connection, you can be the first line of defense for your child’s mental health, ensuring they emerge from this time in their lives healthy and stronger than ever.