The mental health crisis among teens
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning of a teen mental health crisis after a national survey found that 44% of teens felt “persistently sad or hopeless” over the past year. A shocking 20% of teens also reported having contemplated suicide.
There is no one cause, but a multitude of factors – many related to the pandemic – have made it harder to be a teenager today. Many teens have lost a parent or other family member. Another issue is poverty: almost 30% have a parent who lost their job during the pandemic, and around 25% report not having enough food to eat at home. Others may face abuse from their caregivers. And after a period of forced isolation, some teens may simply struggle with loneliness.
There’s also evidence that climate change is impacting the mental health of adolescents. Even those who aren’t directly affected yet may experience climate change as a mental burden as they worry about their future.
Then there’s bullying, exclusion, and discrimination. In the survey, 64% of Asian Americans and 55% of African American students reported experiencing racism at school. These students were also more likely to have mental health problems and difficulty concentrating on schoolwork.
Depression and anxiety are the most common diagnoses for teens. Depression may be masked by behavioral problems, school phobia, failure in school, and substance abuse problems, especially for boys in early adolescence.
Meanwhile, girls are more likely to suffer from anxiety. This could in part be due to the widespread and increasing sexualization of girls, in which on top of everything else, they learn to be hyper aware of their appearance.
Girls generally report more mental health problems than boys, with a shocking 25% having seriously considered suicide in the past year.
However LGBTQ youth may be the most at risk. In this group, 47% reported having serious suicidal thoughts.
Some warning signs of suicide amongst teens include a loss of interest in usual activities, withdrawal from friends and family, an obsession with death or dying, a lack of response to praise, and neglect of personal appearance. Additional risk factors for suicide are substance abuse, impulsivity, having a gun in the home, and recent exposure to suicidal behavior.
Remember that asking about thoughts or plans around suicide and self-harm behavior reduce the likelihood of suicide, rather than encourage it.
Supporting teens in times of crisis
Adolescence is a crucial period in which we build habits that last a lifetime. This includes developing social and emotional skills, coping mechanisms, and healthy habits around exercise, eating, and sleep.
Teens are also exploring their autonomy and identity, and not all experimental behavior means serious problems. However, teens still need support and guidance from adults they can trust.
Showing concern, setting boundaries together, and helping teens to explore their interests and make changes to their environments are more effective tools than interventions that attempt to control teen behaviors.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help teens challenge negative thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions. CBT along with antidepressants of the SSRI class is the most common treatment for depression and anxiety amongst teens. Teaching social skills may also be important for teens who have been isolated because of social media and the pandemic.
Mental health practitioners can get more creative by working with schools, community organizations, and students themselves to design interventions. These might include group therapy for young people suffering from similar issues like grief, as well as peer counseling, psychoeducation, or anti-racism training.
Teens who feel connected to others – at school or otherwise – have higher rates of well-being. So activities that connect students or offer a safe space for minorities, such as LGBTQ youth, can also be a major buffer for those who are most at risk.
While social media use and especially addiction may exacerbate mental health conditions, there are exceptions. Personal one-on-one communication with a friend, as well as positive and funny online content can mitigate feelings of loneliness and distress.
Accessing mental health care
Teens who need help the most are also the most reluctant to ask for it. Self-blame, stigma, and negative perceptions of mental health services are just a few of the barriers to seeking help. Psychoeducation has been found to successfully reduce many of these personal barriers.
However, cost and transportation may be even more important barriers to teens accessing mental health care. This points to the need to bring more mental health services into schools and communities where all youths can access them.
Furthermore, some adolescents may struggle to be consistent with therapy. Virtual Reality has shown to be an extremely useful tool to engage with teens and reduce dropout rates. Amelia VR offers a comprehensive VR platform with more than 100 environments to be used as a tool for mental health professionals to immerse teens in school-related scenarios as well as social situations, among others. If you would like more information about our VR environments and how they can be useful to your practice, contact us for a free demo.