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The Real Crisis of Teen Mental Health

Parents deserve support, care, and compassion, not stigma and shame.

Key points

  • Depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth have doubled during the pandemic.
  • Teens today report spending 75 percent of their waking hours on screens during COVID-19.
  • More than a quarter of teens would welcome reasonable screen time limits.
Source: AntonioGuillem/Bigstock

As the U.S. continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, many American teenagers are battling demons of their own. Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General went so far as to issue a public health advisory on the mental health challenges that children and teenagers are facing in the midst of the pandemic.

According to the Surgeon General’s report, depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.

In a 2020 survey conducted by The Harris Poll and commissioned by the National 4-H Council, the majority of teens (7 in 10) reported experiencing struggles with mental health. Most teens (61 percent) said that the pandemic has increased their feeling of loneliness. And even more teens—79 percent of those surveyed—said that they wish there was an inclusive environment or safe space for people in school to talk about mental health.

Stigma and Shame

Today, parents are facing challenges in finding help for their children, many of whom were healthy and thriving just a few short years ago. Teens that perhaps were honor roll students and excelling in their sports or other activities may now be isolated (while spending the majority of their time online), withdrawn, and failing. Some have even turned to drugs or self-harming. Many good teens are making bad choices.

Mental health is an essential part of overall health. Yet some teens are not willing to get help or consider therapy for fear of being stigmatized or even shamed. In the same way, some parents believe that mental health problems will work themselves out; there are also others who let their egos get in the way, adopting an attitude of "not my child." They may blame it on their teen's peers or the pandemic itself, but placing the blame elsewhere doesn't negate the fact that their child is struggling emotionally.

What's more, there is hardly a shortage of judgy parents who are quick to take aim and shame other parents who are making difficult choices during these challenging times. Whether it's planning a family trip, deciding on counseling, or making the tough decision to pursue residential therapy, parents must do what is best for their teenagers. Getting them help is a priority; getting distracted by parent shaming is wasted time and energy.

According to the Harris Poll discussed earlier, teens report spending 75 percent of their waking hours on screens. Parents' behavior (both online and off) can impact a teen's emotional wellness, as can other negative experiences such as being bullied, finding harmful information online, and negatively comparing themselves to others.

The U.S. Surgeon General Advisory reminds us that technology can be closely tied to mental health. In light of this, parents should take time to examine their own digital life as well as their child's. They can do this by asking:

  • How does my child feel about the time they spend online?
  • Is my child engaging because they want to, or because they feel like they have to?
  • How can I create space for open conversations with my child about their experiences online?
  • How do I feel about my own use of technology?
  • How can I be a better role model for my child?

Signs of a Distressed Youth

Teens may not answer questions about their mental health to parents' satisfaction. Look for telltale signs of stress and depression such as:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or exhaustion
  • Loss of interest in activities or loss of appetite
  • Irregular sleep habits
  • Difficulty focusing or making decisions
  • Withdrawal, seclusion, or apathy

How Parents Can Help Teens at Home

If your child seems to be struggling with these issues, you can employ several strategies to help them manage their stress and anxiety:

  1. One of the most important is to create a peaceful environment in your home. Even the most functional families can overreact in stressful times, especially during a pandemic. However, you can choose to react calmly when in times of crisis. When you feel the urge to lose your temper because of your teen’s behavior or actions, take a step back and breathe for a few moments before engaging them. Show how to handle a difficult situation instead of telling them to calm down when they are angry.
  2. Communicate openly and frequently with your child. Invite them to offer their opinions, input, and ideas on everything from planning family traditions to current events. Be honest with them about your feelings as well. And when you see them accomplish their goals or share their experiences, take the time to acknowledge and encourage their efforts.
  3. Encourage and help your teens to take ownership of their health. Exercise, proper sleep, and nutritious food choices can reduce anxiety. When these habits improve how they feel, they will make them part of their routine.
  4. Reducing screen time. The majority of teens (and likely parents) are on their devices too much. Take time for the entire family to consider a digital diet that is healthy for everyone. More than a quarter of teens (26 percent) wish that someone (either their parent or school) would impose reasonable screen time limits on them.

During these challenging times (and always), parents need support, care, and compassion from family, friends, and others.


Protecting Youth Mental Health - The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory

The Harris Poll - Teen Mental Health Survey - commissioned by the National 4-H Council