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Teens are in crisis: How we can help

By The Health News Team | May 4, 2023
Teenager at the beach on a swing

Teens in the U.S. — especially girls and LGBTQ+ teens — are in crisis. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors steadily increased among all teens from 2011 to 2021. While the COVID-19 pandemic undeniably played a role in these troubling results, experts say there are a number of factors affecting the overall mental health of young people.

“There are likely multiple factors affecting teens’ mental health that will continue to be researched,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “It is important to note that recent data is from the prior decade; and so while the pandemic may be a part of the increase, there are other factors that may include generational differences.”

Some of these differences, Dr. Bradshaw says, include changes in the advancement of information access and communication, such as through use of the internet and cell phones. Additionally, social media, and the related ease of making comparisons with others, is also at play.

Whatever the causes, the CDC found in 2021:

  • Nearly 30% of male students, 60% of female students and 70% of LGBTQ+ students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

  • 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide.

  • 13% of female students and more than 20% of LGBTQ+ students attempted suicide.

  • 42% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.

What’s more, the survey found 11% of high school students were forced to kiss, touch or have sexual intercourse with another person during the past year. Female students were more likely than male students to experience sexual violence. In fact, nearly 20% of female students experienced sexual violence in 2021. Any form of sexual coercion or violence can negatively affect teens’ mental health, the CDC reports.

Helping teens cope

To help a teen who may be experiencing mental health challenges, Dr. Bradshaw says parents must be active spectators and participants in the teen’s life. Watch for sudden changes in behavior, sleep schedules and eating habits and other signs a teen may be struggling, including isolating from loved ones and avoiding favorite activities. Parents should also be aware of signs a teen’s friends or romantic partners may be controlling or uncaring. Knowing how a child feels about themselves can also be helpful, he says.

“Those with low self-esteem will be at a higher risk for depression and have difficulty enforcing boundaries with others,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Have a conversation with your child about signs of depression, red flags in relationships and the importance of boundaries. Focus on helping them connect with their passions and values, and work to help them increase their resiliency to buffer any risks and stressors they may face.”

When working with teens, Dr. Bradshaw and colleagues focus on the use of tools derived from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Some strategies include:

  • Identifying healthy distractions

  • Increasing emotional awareness

  • Practicing mindfulness

  • Learning communication skills

  • Increasing engagement in daily activities

  • Identifying values

  • Changing the relationship between internal thoughts and emotional experiences

“When specifically addressing suicide ideation and sexual violence, it is important to involve supportive adults, increase assertiveness and develop crisis safety plans,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

Supporting LGBTQ+ teens

When it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ students, Dr. Bradshaw says it’s crucial to be affirming. “If we can accept these youth as the individuals they are, then we can reduce the distress and alienation they are at risk for,” he says.

Supporting groups and centers for LGBTQ+ young people and connecting your child with these supports are also important. And at home, having conversations and truly listening must happen regularly.

“Create space to talk about the challenges or adversities they face,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “And have open, honest conversations with your child about sex.”

Schools make a difference

According to Dr. Bradshaw, school is a central part of all young people’s lives and can help provide support to teens. School is often the environment, he says, where things can be noticed and others can make a difference. However, schools, like parents, need the community’s backing.

“It is important that we continue to offer various activities, programs and groups to young people to help them connect with others, find their passions and get engaged,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “As a society, we may also want to consider the resources and funding for schools. Teachers make a big impact but usually for little compensation, especially as they may be acting as a teacher, mentor, social worker and surrogate parent.”

Most schools have a counseling office that can provide teens with social and emotional support. For additional assistance, talk with your child’s primary care doctor about whether your teen may benefit from working with a mental health professional.

If your teen is in crisis, immediately call 911 or call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which is available 24 hours a day from anywhere in the country.

Learn more about mental health services for teens at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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