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American teens are experiencing an extraordinary mental health crisis, according to findings in the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey. For this report, the CDC assessed questionnaires from 17,232 adolescents at 152 high schools across the United States.
The survey found that nearly three in five teenage girls reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2021 — double the boys’ rate. Overall, 42 percent of high school students said they felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they halted their usual activities.
Twenty-two percent of all students said they seriously considered attempting suicide. This included one in three girls and 14 percent of boys.
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”
The picture is similarly troubling among LGBTQIA+ youth. Sixty-nine percent reported persistent sadness (compared with 35 percent of heterosexual youths). And 45 percent said they’d considered suicide (compared with 15 percent of heterosexual kids).
“Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion,” says Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. She notes that the rates of teen mental health concerns have consistently risen since the survey began in 2011.
Numerous other studies, surveys, and experts have warned of a mental health crisis among teens, including a 2021 special report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, outlining “alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges” among youth.
Experts cite multiple factors:
- Increased academic and social pressures, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Feelings of hopelessness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the required by the lockdown and social distancing.
- The rise of smartphones, social media, and a shift away from in-person socialization. In May, Murthy issued another public advisory — warning that social media can have “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
The advisory notes: “In early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressure, peer opinions, and peer comparison.”
The Way Forward
Government officials and others are recognizing the needs of youth and responding with more resources to build mental health programs.
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable,” Murthy says. “Our obligation to act is not just medical — it’s moral.”
Debra Houry, MD, MPH, the CDC’s chief medical officer, notes: “High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive.”
(For tips on how to better support teens, visit “NATURAL MENTAL HEALTH: How to Support Anxious Teens.”)
This article originally appeared as “Teens in Crisis” in the July/August 2023 issue.