Recently, the Center for Disease Control published its bi-yearly Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which presents the results of a comprehensive assessment of adolescent health. It analyzes trends of adolescent behavior from 2011 to the present. The most recent survey was completed in 2021 and analyzed over 17,000 questionnaires from 152 schools in 50 states. It queries sexual behavior, substance abuse, exposure to violence and mental health. It’s an important document that helps us understand how kids are doing in the United States.
Let’s consider the good news for teens. Risky sexual behavior and substance abuse continue to decline. There was also a decrease in the percentage of youth who were bullied at school.
But youth mental health continues to worsen, with more than 40% of high school students feeling so sad or hopeless that they were unable to engage in their usual activities for at least several weeks during the past year. And even more troubling was an increase in the number of youth with serious suicidal thoughts.
The survey also found that girls are struggling even more than boys. Nearly 30% of female students drank alcohol during the month before completing the survey. In 2021, almost 60% of teenage girls experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and nearly 25% made a suicide plan.
These findings are alarming.
From 2011 to 2021, the percentage of youth that experienced sustained feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased every year from 28% in 2011 to 42% in 2021. The percentage of teens that made a suicide plan increased from 13% in 2011 to 18% in 2021. The percentage of kids that attempted suicide rose from 8% in 2011 to 10 percent in 2021. Not surprisingly, LGBQ+ kids were more likely to experience distress than their teenage peers. Overall, 29% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the 30 days prior to the survey.
As a practicing family psychologist, these results don’t surprise me. I’ve seen a decline in teenage mental health over the last several years — certainly exacerbated by the pandemic. I’ve witnessed an explosion of anxiety and depression among teens. I hear their concerns about the climate, political divisiveness, war and their future. They’re discouraged, demoralized and disconnected.
So how can parents address these concerns?
■ Open communication is key. Given these numbers, it’s important for parents to ask their teenagers if they’re experiencing sadness or hopelessness, sexual violence, or have suicidal thoughts. It might be useful to discuss this survey with them. What do they think about these numbers? Are they or their friends struggling? This could be a springboard for a frank discussion about their mental health.
As teens move towards greater independence from their parents, they often don’t talk to their folks about their innermost thoughts and feelings. Instead, they gravitate toward their peers. Not uncommonly, they “fake good” or lie to their parents so they won’t be restricted. Parental monitoring is not enough. In the CDC survey, 86% of kids reported that their parents always knew where they were going or who they were with. Yet, they still had high percentages of poor mental health and sexual violence.
Family meals and spending time with teenagers are important in keeping the lines of communication open.
■ Be persistent. My daughters, as teens, had their share of challenges. As their dad, I was often clueless about their difficulties. But I didn’t stop trying. I talked with them about the books they were reading at school, their interests and their friends. I managed to take each one of them out for breakfast every week. Sometimes we just stared at each other. But other times, they shared their fears and dreams.
Focus on listening rather than lecturing.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.
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