Content warning: Discussion of suicide ahead.
According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week, US teens are experiencing record levels of sadness, violence and trauma. Mental health has continued to worsen over the past decade for all high school students, but the situation seems to be most grim for teen girls and those identifying as LGBTQ+.
Nearly 3 in 5 teen girls in the U.S. felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—a rate double that of teen boys, and 60% higher than levels seen a decade ago. Almost 25% of teen girls made a suicide plan in 2021. Among LGBTQ+-identifying youth, close to 70% experienced feelings of persistent sadness, and almost 25% had attempted suicide in the past year. Teen girls who experienced sexual violence also rose 20% between the years 2017 and 2021.
The findings come from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which analyzed 10 years’ worth of survey data from high school students across the country, looking at factors related to teen health and wellness, including sexual behaviors, substance use, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, experiences of violence as well as protective factors such as school connectedness and positive parental relationships.
And while some of the findings were positive, like lower rates of drug use, risky sexual behaviors and bullying in schools over the past decade, the survey found rates of poor mental health in teens have been trending upward since 2011—but jumped 10% higher between 2019 and 2021, likely exacerbated by pandemic-related isolation, a significant risk factor for depression.
“This is the hard data that shows what we have known anecdotally for the last couple of years,” Laurie McGarry Klose, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, told The Washington Post.
The news is incredibly concerning, and seems to crystallize the issue that various warning signs have been pointing to in the recent past. Mental health-related emergency room visits among teens have increased. Eating disorders are on the rise. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) declared a national mental health emergency among children and adolescents, and started advocating for depression and suicide risk screenings for all kids age 12 and up. The U.S. Surgeon General issued a 57-page youth mental health advisory in 2021.
But the data show that the trend toward worsening teen mental health was there all along. “There was a mental health crisis before the pandemic—it just didn’t catch everyone’s attention the way it does now,” Dr. Cori Green, the director of behavioral health education and integration in pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, shared with The New York Times.
As a parent, all of this can be hard to digest and wrap your head around. Are we missing the signs? Spotting depression in teens can be difficult, because depression doesn’t always appear how it might show up in adults. It can also be tricky to know when to step in if your teen isn’t reaching out for help—or seems fine and stable on the surface. But that’s why consistent check-ins can be so important. Here are a few concrete ways to help the teens in your life.
6 ways parents can help support teen mental health
“High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma,” Debra Houry, MD, MPH, CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science, said in a statement. “These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope and thrive.” From helping them find their footing at school to staying curious about their feelings, here’s how to help a struggling teen.
1. Create a “headline” for them by listening well
Your teen might not want to have a back-and-forth with you about what they’re going through—they might just want a sounding board. Teens are often driven by their need for autonomy, notes psychologist Lisa Damour in The New York Times, whose latest book is “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers”. The tactic she uses in her own home to help validate her teen’s feelings is to essentially role play that you, the parent, are an editor and your teenager is a reporter.
Here’s how it works: Act as if your teenager is reading you their latest article when telling you about an issue they’re having. “My job is to listen so intently that when she comes to the end of the draft, I can produce a headline—the headline being a distilled, accurate summary of what she said that doesn’t introduce any new ideas. That shows them that you’re listening, and validates their feelings,” Damour states.
2. Stay curious about their feelings and emotions
Just like in the toddler days, observing your teen’s feelings with curiosity rather than judgment can help them feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions rather than suppressing them. You don’t have to have all the answers—but just being a landing pad and a safe space for them by showing empathy and curiosity about their experiences can help your teen feel more comfortable talking about what they’re going through.
“Parents often feel like they need to have all the answers, but in reality, children just want to be heard and understood. We also don’t always have to try and turn things for good,” licensed school counselor Sarah Pool, MA, LPC, NCC, writes for Motherly.
You might say something like, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so frustrated, can you tell me what happened?”, or “It seems like you’re having a really tough day,” which not only acknowledges their emotions, but creates an opportunity for them to process how they feel.
3. Help them find someone to talk to
If your teen seems to be having trouble coping or seems persistently sad, overwhelmed or hopeless, let them know that you’re there to help them find some additional mental health support and resources. You might say, “You’re dealing with a lot, and you deserve to feel better. Let’s look into finding someone who might be able to help us navigate this.” Then, reach out to your child’s pediatrician for recommendations on a mental health counselor.
4. Encourage teens to participate in school activities
Because most teens spend much of their time at school, the CDC report states that feeling close to peers and teachers at school and participating in school-based activities can make a profound difference in their lives. Fostering “school connectedness” by helping them feel involved and part of a community—on a personal level, not just an academic level—can have a positive impact on mental health in the teen years, but this impact carries over well into adulthood, too.
That may look like a gentle nudge to help your teen join a club or peer group they identify with, a team sport they might love or even just a suggestion to attend more school-based events, like a robotics competition or the spring musical.
5. Keep track of what they’re up to
What’s known as “parental monitoring”, defined as parents or other adults in the family knowing where their high school kid is hanging out—and who they’re hanging out with—can be especially protective when it comes to teen health and well-being, the CDC report found. Studies show that high parental monitoring is associated with decreased sexual risk, substance use, experiences of violence and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
But it’s key that this type of monitoring doesn’t seem intrusive or interfere with their independence. It’s less about control and more about getting a heads-up on what teens are doing.
Regularly check in with your teen about their after-school or weekend plans. Knowing you’re keeping an eye out for them can help your teen make safer decisions by avoiding potentially risky behaviors.
6. Pay close attention to signs of depression and suicide risk
“Depression is a mood disorder that can cause children (and adults) to feel sad, irritable or hopeless,” Pool writes.
She notes that if you can answer “yes” to more than two of these questions below and your teen’s symptoms have persisted most days in a week for at least 2 weeks, then it is likely they are struggling with depression that may warrant a professional opinion.
- Are they sad or irritable most of the day?
- Have they lost interest in things that they used to really enjoy? Or a significant decrease in energy and lack of motivation to do much of anything?
- Have their eating or sleeping habits changed?
- Are they feeling worthless, hopeless about their future, or guilty about things that aren’t their fault?
- Have they had thoughts of suicide?
If you’re worried about your teen’s mental health, reach out to their pediatrician or a family physician, who can help recommend the next best steps, or contact the resources below.
Mental health resources
When to seek urgent help
If your teen or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides free 24/7 support, or in an emergency, call 911.
You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 (US) or 877-330-6366 (Canada).
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also provides confidential treatment referrals.