Teens are struggling. Suicide rates are rising. Self-harm is increasing. Black youth are committing suicide at double the rate of 15 years ago, girls are twice as likely to experience serious mental health symptom as boys, and almost half of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered suicide in the past year. Over half of teens surveyed reported emotional abuse in their homes, and 1 in 10 reported physical abuse. This is astounding and disturbing.
What’s feeding this?
- Increased isolation with the pandemic moved young people further into social media to connect. The reduction in “in real life” relationships along with the inevitable comparisons to curated and polished social media presences are eroding youth confidence and self-esteem.
- Societal issues. Racism, classism, climate issues, and socioeconomic factors are glaring. Teens experience hopelessness and a resignation about the future.
- Academic demands. Schools continue to ratchet up the expectations and students who pursue college educations are experiencing heightened competition to get into college, along with the stress about financing their degree.
- Reduced access to mental health care. With the increased need, the already inadequate supply of mental health professionals has been stretched too thin. Even when parents and caregivers notice a problem and seek help, they are frequently unable to find effective care.
What can we do?
- Be present. We are all busy and our presence matters. Make sure you spend meaningful time with the teens in your life. Make eye contact, listen, and engage. The most important conversations often occur in the least likely places: driving somewhere, sitting together at a meal, playing cards. Make space for this to happen.
- Let adolescents know that the way they feel make sense. Before jumping in to problem solve, just sit with the reality of their experience and validate it. “It’s understandable that you’re overwhelmed given…”.
- Talk about and model mental health. Put mental health on your radar and talk about it often. Signal to the kids in your life that you are open to these discussions and that you are alert to mental health challenges. Use your own behavior as well as discussions to teach how to manage mental health effectively. Kids are not systematically taught these skills in school. We must fill in the gap.
- Ask directly about suicide and self-harm. Don’t let the awkwardness of the question stop you. Most young people will acknowledge these symptoms and are looking for another solution to their problems.
- When mental health care is needed, get to work. Persist in seeking adequate care. The poorly staffed mental health industry is hard to navigate, and adult determination and support is often necessary.
- Openly discuss social media risks. Speak to the comparing, the needs to belong and be liked, and point out how social media both exploits and distorts these needs. Warn about the risks of sexting and let your teens know you will always be there to support and love them.
Teens are carrying a heavy load and mental health is suffering. Adults make a difference in the lives of adolescents. Teens need us. Let’s do what works!