Teen mental health is in crisis, study shows. What can parents do?

Teen mental health is in crisis, study shows. What can parents do?

Results from a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey add to the evidence that teen mental health is in crisis, with particularly concerning numbers surrounding teen girls. 

The survey found around 1 in 3 high school girls in the U.S. have seriously considered attempting suicide and more than half of teen girls, 57%, reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless” — a record high.

By contrast, 14% of high school boys told the 2021 survey that they had seriously considered attempting suicide, up from 13% in 2011. 

Among LGBQ+ students, close to 70% said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, more than 50% had poor mental health during the past 30 days and almost 25% attempted suicide during the past year.

Alyssa Mairanz, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Empower Your Mind Therapy, says the numbers are distressing, yet unfortunately, she “wasn’t surprised.”

“There are a few things that teens nowadays deal with that older generations didn’t have to deal with,” Mairanz notes, including social media, which can lead to harmful comparisons and online bullying, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing minds.

So what can parents do to make sure their teens are OK?

Know the line between normal and not

“There’s so many things that are typical with teens that aren’t necessarily cause for concern, like general moodiness (and) fighting with parents,” Mairanz says. “Parents don’t know when it’s cause for concern and what’s more normal, so I think understanding that line is super important.”

She says it may be a sign of something more serious if you see your teen…

  • is in intense, longer-lasting low moods
  • is becoming more isolated or withdrawn, including not wanting to socialize or see friends
  • is not wanting to get out of bed
  • is engaging in high risky behaviors, including physical aggression or intense substance use

Another sign that often goes under the radar? High perfectionism.

“A teen that’s really setting these very high, unrealistic standards for themselves in terms of anything — could be grades, friends, looks,” she says. “When it’s really that high, it’s definitely a warning sign. These can often lead to depression (and) suicidality.”

Discussing the results of the recent survey on CBS News “Prime Time,” Dr. Debra Houry, chief medical officer at the CDC, noted that changes in sleep and appetite can also be an indicator. 

Listen and validate

“When parents are more validating to their child and focus on what they need versus what maybe the parent is assuming, teenagers tend to be much more open and willing to come to their parents when they’re struggling,” Mairanz says.

So, instead of opening a dialogue the intention to provide solutions, which may look like this:

  • Responding to an upset teenager with, “Oh it’s fine,” “It’s not such a big deal” or “It’s all going to be OK.”
  • Or saying, “Let’s talk about how we can study better” or “Let’s create more intense notes” when a child does poorly on a test.

Mairanz suggests listening and validating, instead.

“Parents don’t necessarily even realize how their response to their teenagers can have an impact. … But a lot of times, the children really just need the emotional support. Because when they hear a solution, they hear, ‘OK, I’m not doing enough,’ rather than, ‘OK, this is a struggle and it’s understandable that you’re upset.'”

Houry says being as “open and nonjudgmental as possible” can help a child feel more comfortable coming to their parent.

Keep an eye on social media usage

Parents should look out for a “real codependency” between their kid and their phones, which can look like being on social media and not taking breaks, Mairanz advises.

“Especially if it’s impacting their ability to function, go to school, do their homework, be with friends… it’s important to try to make sure teens get a break from all of that,” she says.

Don’t be a stranger to your child’s circles

It’s important not only to talk to your child, but to know your child’s friends and their friends’ parents, Houry says. 

“That way you’re able to have an open communication with families around you, build that support system and have a good sense of where your child is and what they’re up to,” she explains. 

Don’t ignore a child asking for help

If a child asks for professional help, don’t brush it off. Experts say that’s a sign to take action. 

“Sometimes there’s still a stigma around therapy, especially with parents because (they) want their children to be OK and they take it very personally when we’re not,” Mairanz explains. “It’s unfortunately common for parents to be like, ‘You’re fine. This is just normal teenage stuff, you don’t need help.'”

If a child isn’t comfortable enough to ask for support, look out for signs they need professional help, including self-harm, increased substance use, withdrawing from school or a change in sociability. 

Make sure you’re OK too

While it’s important to focus on the teen, Mairanz says it’s also crucial for parents to realize they need to focus on themselves. 

“Whether it has to do with their own mental health issues or specifically around parenting, kids pick up a lot – so if a parent is really struggling, it’s important for them to deal with that,” she says. “Know that part of helping your teen is also helping yourself.”

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or crisis, you can reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline here

For more information about mental health care resources and support, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. ET, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email [email protected].