The Ultimate Guide to The Teen Mental Health Crisis
In the U.S., rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality are at all-time highs. A 2018 report by the Child Mind Institute found that there was a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnosis among young people over the preceding decade. Pew Research Center found that the number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017. When compared to pre-pandemic estimates, a recent analysis published in JAMA found that symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled during the first year of the pandemic.
What’s behind the increase, and how can you best support your teen?
Anxiety and Depression: The Statistics
Before exploring those questions, let’s take a closer look at teen anxiety and depression.
Anxiety in teens
Anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of extreme unease and nervousness generated by worry about the future. It’s sometimes associated with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. Anxiety occurs when overpowering levels of stress become insurmountable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 4.4 million children and teens ranging from 3 to 17 years old have been diagnosed with anxiety. The organization also reported that 1 in 3 children within that same age range who have been diagnosed with anxiety also have depression.
While anxiety is one of the more frequent mental health diagnoses among children, a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics found that only 6 in 10 children and teens (ages 3-17) with anxiety received treatment.
Depression in teens
Depression is a mental health condition that brings about a sense of hopelessness and lack of motivation. It can interfere with daily living. Depression can include the following health conditions:
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Difficulty eating.
- Difficulty maintaining responsibilities.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Withdrawing or becoming socially isolated.
A teen experiencing chronic feelings of hopelessness and sadness that last for at least two weeks may be experiencing a major depressive episode.
The CDC reported that nearly 2 million children and young adults between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with depression. Anxiety is also very common in teens with depression — nearly 75% of children and teens within that same age range who have depression also have anxiety.
In addition, according to a U.S. surgeon general advisory issued in December 2021, in early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019.*
What’s Causing the Teenage Mental Health Crisis?
Embark Behavioral Health Division President Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT, explained some of the root causes for the increases in mental health problems, which have especially heightened during the pandemic:
“The thing driving the mental health crisis in teens is loneliness, a lack of connection. You would think we’d be more connected now with COVID because kids are at home more and in closer proximity to their families, but the opposite is true. Teens are struggling with being away from friends, with being unable to escape family issues, with disappointment due to canceled activities. Additionally, you’d think they’d feel more connected because of social media, but social media actually divides more than it connects.”
He added that social media can contribute to mental health conditions because teens compare and contrast themselves, which can lead to feeling like they are “less than” or disconnected from their peers.
How Worried Should You Be, and How Can You Help?
Tibbitts said some may brush off the idea that the rates are increasing, assuming that people just “feel” like teen mental health issues are worse and don’t believe that the data supports the claim.
“But the truth is that it is worse,” he said. “CDC data shows that we all should be very worried about rates of teen depression.”
Whether you’re worried about your teen or not, there are steps you can take to help create an environment where your child would feel comfortable opening up about their emotional health and well-being.
Make time for emotional connection with your teen
“What it boils down to is structuring time,” Tibbitts said. He pointed out that while most homes are more emotionally safe than not, families don’t have enough time together.
Structure a couple of times a week to have family dinner or structure a regular weekend activity to create a routine. You may find that you wind up talking about trivial things to start — the show they’re watching, what they did at school, how their friends are doing — but those conversations are opportunities to build an emotional connection.
When you have scheduled time together, you’ll not only be more attuned to your teen’s life and feelings over time, but you’ll also develop a connection that allows them to come to you when they need your help. They’ll be more likely to open up about important mental health issues like substance use, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
Contact mental health resources
Tibbitts noted that a teenage mental health crisis in your own family could just creep up, likening it to a shift in temperature.
Keep a close eye on your teen, and if you see the warning signs for anxiety, depression, or suicide, reach out to the family doctor, a local therapist, a pastor, or a coach. You can also reach out to those people your child interacts with regularly. A teacher, a favorite relative, a neighbor, a significant other, or someone else who is close to your child can also be a part of their support network.
From there, Tibbitts said you’ll likely look at setting up an appointment with a mental health professional.
Reach out if you’re worried about someone else’s teen
If you suspect another teen is experiencing a mental health crisis, Tibbitts’ advice is simple but sometimes hard to implement, as it’s normal to not want to cause alarm. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Talk to that child’s parents,” he said.
Tibbitts recognized that’s a hard conversation to have. He advised:
“Not talking to them by yourself makes it a little easier. Bring along someone you trust to help you have that conversation.”
During the conversation, explain why you’re concerned and prepare concrete examples and details. It’s better to have the conversation just in case than to wish you had brought something up sooner.
If you can’t talk to the child’s parents because you suspect those parents to be unsafe, that’s a different issue. For example, if your child tells you that their friend’s father is sexually abusing their friend, Tibbits said you can reach out to local or national agencies and resources, such as crisis lines, 911, or state or county departments of child and family services.
Closing Thoughts: Take Action When Needed — for Your Teen and for You
It’s important that you ask for help if you’re concerned that your teen may be experiencing mental health challenges. Your support network could include your child’s primary care physician, school counselor, or other experienced health care professionals or mental health providers in your community. Ensure that your child has peer support and feels like family members are there to help them with their healing process. If depression is a concern, you’ll also want to get an opinion from someone with experience in suicidal ideation and tendencies.
Don’t forget about yourself — make sure you have loved ones around you to support you through this. Strong support is key to healing for the entire family.
With so many treatment options available and resources like help lines and crisis text lines, there are lots of ways to intervene. The important thing is to seek early intervention to prevent issues from worsening.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 -the Crisis Text Line- from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.