Stanford footballers wear “Mental Health Matters” t-shirts to commemorate a teammate who committed suicide before a game. Yalonda M James (AP)
“Young people are telling us that they are in a crisis and that we need to listen and act,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the Division of Adolescent Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A report released this Monday by the Department of Health’s agency paints an alarming landscape of youth, particularly girls, trapped by mental health issues, sadness and sexual violence.
The report is the most comprehensive x-ray of health problems in the broadest sense affecting young people, covering issues such as mental health, suicidal ideation, drug use, violence and sexual behavior. At the presentation this Monday in a telematic press conference, CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry was blunt: “The data paints a grim picture: American youth are mired in a rising tide of sadness, violence and trauma. Over the past decade, adolescents, particularly girls, have seen dramatic increases in their experience of violence, poor mental health and suicidal tendencies.”
Ethier has provided detailed information on the study, the first since the pandemic, with fieldwork conducted among high school students in the fall of 2021. There are two alarming fronts. On the one hand, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on young people’s mental health, although the trends are behind us and factors such as social networks and problems at school also contribute. On the other hand, sexual violence has skyrocketed.
In 2021, 42% of high school students had experienced persistent sadness and hopelessness, nearly a third had suffered from mental health issues, 22% had seriously considered suicide, 18% had made suicide plans, and 10% had done so. I tried it last year. There are record numbers in all divisions. And if you look at girls, almost three in five adolescents reported depressive symptoms, almost a third had considered suicide (58% increase in a decade), almost one in four were planning suicide (60% up from in 2011) and 13% had tried (compared to 7% of boys). The incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and behaviors is twice as high in adolescent girls as in boys. The situation is even worse in the LGBT community, where 45% of young people have considered suicide.
The situation is also alarming when it comes to sexual violence: “Adolescent girls experienced record levels of violence in 2021,” explained Ethier, who believes that this violence contributes to depressive tendencies. Almost one in five girls, 18%, had recently experienced sexual violence, a 20% increase since 2017. 14% of adolescent girls were physically forced into sex when they didn’t want to.
Over the past 10 years, this number has remained high at around 10-11%, but has increased from 11% to 14% in just two years from 2019 to 2021. “This is really alarming. Out of every 10 teenage girls you know, at least one and probably more have been raped. This tragedy cannot continue,” Ethier stressed.
“This data is difficult to hear and should prompt action,” said Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer. “As the mother of a teenager, I am heartbroken. As a public health leader, I am committed to taking action and preventing these issues and the impact they are having on our youth and their families. As an emergency room physician, I still remember the college student I treated after she was raped. I felt ashamed and felt I hadn’t done enough to stop it,” she said.
Adolescent girls also consume more alcohol (27% vs. 19%, although in this case with a significant downward trend for both sexes) and suffer more from cyberbullying (20% vs. 11%, with stable numbers compared to previous surveys). The 89-page report shows some progress on bullying in schools themselves (perhaps somewhat skewed by the pandemic), avoiding the use of drugs and toxic substances, and less risky sexual practices.
The study also analyzes racial differences, but generally they are not as pronounced as those based on gender. It finds that black and Hispanic students were more likely to stay away from school for safety reasons, suggesting they were exposed to environmental violence in their communities and schools. However, black students were less likely than most other groups to experience bullying at school.
Regarding sexual violence, white female college students were more at risk than some other racial/ethnic groups of experiencing sexual violence at the hands of anyone, while the highest incidence of forced sex was among Alaskan Native American/Native American girls.
“Our children need us right now,” said Anna King, president of the National Association of Parents and Teachers, who referred to depressive and suicidal tendencies in the study presentation. “We said so. Our nation is facing an adolescent mental health crisis, and this data makes it even more devastating. And we have to do it now. Our children are the future of our country and it is critical that we help them reach their full potential now,” before sharing his own experience.
“My family went through such a situation five years ago with my 15-year-old niece named Lada. i was a happy girl It was very participatory. He danced, he did sports. He ran track and field and basketball. She was a dancer and cheerleader. We never knew what signs to look for. And that was very important to us. I urge our families to come together and look for signs.”
Talking to children, creating safer environments in schools, and special programs to support young people with mental health problems are the recipes the CDC experts recommend for dealing with the problems highlighted in the study.