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What’s Behind our Teen Mental Health Crisis?

by Sean Szeles, LPC

Being a teenager in America is not what it used to be.

In the past decade, the suicide rate has increased by nearly 40%, according to the CDC. One in five high school students reports that they have seriously considered killing themselves. Emergency room visits for teens cutting or engaging in other forms of self-harm has risen by a staggering 329% in the past decade.

Meanwhile, the risk factors teens face are changing. Teenage pregnancy, driving under the influence, drug use, and binge drinking are all on the decline. However, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are increasing. While COVID certainly magnified these concerns, researchers have been observing these trends since before the start of pandemic. So, what’s going on?

Here’s a simple break-down of what science has to say about what is happening, along with some solutions for parents, teachers, and mentors who work with teens.

Teen Brains Are Developing

Puberty catapults the development of the limbic system in the brain, making teenagers more attuned to emotions, rewards, and threats. However, the pre-frontal cortex, which plays a significant role in self-control and emotional regulation, matures later (reaching full maturity between 19-25). As a result, teens experience the stress of life before developing the necessary coping skills to handle it. It’s like having a gas pedal, but no brakes.

Teen Brains Are Developing Differently

In the mid-1800’s, girls and boys started puberty at around age 16. Today, children are starting puberty closer to age 12. Scientists are still figuring out the reasons for this change, but the outcomes are apparent. When puberty begins, a neurological network, called the social brain, is put on high alert, resulting in teens becoming hyper-aware of their social environment and the social hierarchies around them. While you might not have needed a peer-reviewed study to tell you that, what continues to interest researchers is that children are now becoming attuned to these social hierarchies at earlier ages.

Teen Brains are Developing on Smart Phones

As of 2018, 95% of teens have a smart phone. Further, approximately half of teens report being online almost constantly. With this in mind, experts are still exploring the relationship between social media and mental health. While we can’t definitively say that the use of social media directly leads to poor mental health, it does amplify whatever is already going on in a teen’s life. So, a teenager may have to be reminded of the stressors seeming constantly. Remember the fear of missing out on a party? A vulnerable teen will experience this feeling even more online, over and over.

Teen Brains are Developing in Isolation

Loneliness is a strong predictor of depression and suicide. New research from Harvard University shows that feelings of social isolation are on the rise, and that teens and young adults are hit hardest. The most socially “connected” generation is also the loneliest. And, while there are a variety of factors contributing to this loneliness, its detriments have the potential to be catastrophic.

Teen Brains are Developing Without Sleep

Adolescents need a lot of sleep. Like, a lot of sleep. Inversely, unrestricted access to video games and smart phones can lead to poor sleep, or loss of sleep. Further, when a person is not getting adequate sleep, it’s harder to control emotions and manage social relationships. For a teenager, all of this results in a dangerous cocktail for poor sleep, making teens more vulnerable to mental health trouble.

What Can be Done?

So, what can we do? The brain is being rewired in adolescence, making it ripe for meaningful change with the right help. Through the use of coping skills and support, mental health unwellness is treatable and preventable. Here are some potential solutions:

1. Talk About it: Talking about serious mental health issues like suicide might seem scary. Many parents and caretakers may worry that if they bring up the topic, they will manifest or create the problem. But research shows that isn’t true. In fact, talking about these problems reduces stigma and makes it more likely for teens to get help.

2. Cultivate Meaningful Connections: Our brains are wired for connection. Maximizing interactions with others can keep our brains active and engaged. So, encourage teens to find community. If they’re having trouble, try therapy. In particular, the therapeutic relationship is a safe space to troubleshoot barriers to connection.

3. Reframe Aloneness: There is a difference between isolation and solitude. Research finds that teenagers who deliberately seek out solitude show higher levels of well-being and are less lonely than their peers who are alone just because of circumstance. Learning to be alone in an intentional way, using techniques such as meditation, can help turn guarded isolation into meaningful solitude.

4. Get Wise: You don’t have to be surrounded by friends to change how you think about loneliness. One study on loneliness found that, despite culture or socioeconomic background, more wisdom led to less loneliness. This means being self-reflective and thoughtful about the loneliness we experience can help keep it in perspective. After all, loneliness is something that most people will experience from time to time.

5. Teach Coping Skills: When the Surgeon General issued a warning about the epidemic of mental health issues in teens, he encouraged more access to high quality counseling on stress management and emotion regulation. Similarly, the state of California recently passed a law that made mental health education a mandatory part of the school curriculum. More education systems could do the same. Teaching our children effective and healthy coping strategies can aid in preventing future mental health concerns and development of unhealthy coping strategies, like drug-use.

It is an unprecedented time for our teens. They are facing unique challenges that we, and those before us, did not have to deal with when we were growing up. However, there are things we can do, such as the strategies outlined above, to support our teen as they develop into adulthood.

For more information, read from the sources below:

On the mental health pandemic in teens:

On loneliness in teens and young adults:

On wisdom and loneliness:

On battling loneliness:

On the benefits of solitude:


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