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The Kids Are Not Alright

Adolescent sadness, hopelessness, and suicidality are skyrocketing. What to do?

Key points

  • The CDC reports that adolescent sadness, hopelessness, and suicidality have increased at an alarming rate over the last decade.
  • Mass shootings are increasing rapidly, adding to the major stress burden that adolescents are experiencing.
  • As a society, we know what works to keep kids safe, but we're not doing it. How does that make them feel?
  • We need to do more than give kids tools for coping. We need to take action to change the structures behind the stressors.

The recent Center for Disease Control report on adolescent mental health again shows major, disturbing increases in adolescent mental health risks over the past 10 years, including a 50 percent jump in those who report having, “Experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” (from 28 percent to 42 percent) and a 38 percent increase in those who, “Seriously considered attempting suicide” (from 16 percent to 22 percent).

This follows a long-standing trend showing that we have been creating a world in which stressors of all kinds are reaching crisis levels, with the reality of a stress pandemic having already arrived for adolescents rather than merely predicted (as noted in my previous Psychology Today blogs on this topic).

The sources of increased stress are many. In the news today is another mass shooting at a school, this time on the campus of Michigan State University, with four students killed and five seriously injured. “Another” is too mild, really, but tracking mass shootings makes it feel that way.

In 2022, the number of mass shootings in the U.S., the number killed in those shootings, and the number injured in them each rose nearly 250 percent compared to the 2014 statistics.

The first weeks of 2023 keep or exceed the dreadful pace, with 70 mass shootings. For kids, coping with the reality that this could happen at any time, constantly reinforced with traumatizing active shooter drills and “bulletproof” backpacks, is virtually impossible. Constantly scanning the environment for threats is a major way to raise stress levels.

Yet, as certain as the sunrise, we focus on two recurring threads. First, we ask what were the motives and life stories of the shooter, in the forlorn hope that we can identify the next perpetrator soon enough to stop him (almost always “him”). Forlorn because there are no screening tools that can work in the real world with such a low base rate of mass shooters in the population.

Either we make the identification of potentially risky individuals highly “sensitive” so that we won’t miss anyone with enough characteristics to raise alarms, but in the process, generate far too many candidates to monitor, much less intervene with. Or, we can tighten the “specificity” criterion of the crucial characteristics, but at a higher risk of missing dangerous individuals. Second, what are the strategies that might help teens cope with the world we’ve created? This has generated some valuable tools that can mitigate the ongoing trauma that kids experience and can help in developing and refining these tools as needed.

These solutions may miss the “elephant in the room.” Guns.

The U.S. rate of gun ownership is about 3.5 times higher than the next highest Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) country–Canada. The rate of gun deaths per person in the U.S. is five times higher than the next highest WEIRD country. Why? Some argue that it’s part of American exceptionalism, a deep cultural attachment to extreme individualism. Though that might play some role, the reality is that supermajorities (ranging from 63 percent to 87 percent) of the U.S. population want much stricter gun regulations, from banning assault weaponry to much tighter rules on who can purchase guns.

So we have massive evidence of a terrifying trend getting worse every year. We have a diagnosis of why we may be suffering from this malady: we know that unregulated guns lead to vastly higher gun deaths and the fear that comes with it. We have a raft of remedies that would make a big difference, evidenced, for example, by sharp increases in mass shootings and deaths after the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004.

Symptom, diagnosis, remedy: check, check, and check. We can’t enact the remedies, even though supermajorities support them. Again, why? The answer surely lies in the stew of politics, power, and money. “Gun rights” also serve as an identity marker that can be a reliable way to garner support or suppress opposing views.

How does the lack of action impact adolescents?

But we should also ask: How is this inaction on protection from gun violence felt by children and adolescents? Fear is one major response–no safe spaces left, from preschools to schools to universities, from clubs to grocery stores to churches. Another is the growing hopelessness to change that reality, having tried, with minimal success, to get society to adopt gun regulations.

The mass youth protests that grew out of the Parkland school shooting exactly five years ago haven’t yet achieved what they had hoped and worked for. Add to that mix the inescapable fact that adults haven’t offered them the protection that is an essential element of the nurturance rights acknowledged by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (Ruck, Keating, et al., 2014).

It’s no leap to connect those stressful feelings of fear, hopelessness, and lack of protection to the dramatic rise in sadness, hopelessness, and suicidality. When we add stressor upon stressor to kids’ lives and minds, the mental health impacts are seen well beyond those who are especially vulnerable (Guyer, 2020).

Gun violence is only one of a pile-up of existential threats: climate change's “grave and mounting threats,” according to the most recent ICPP report, rapidly rising social and economic inequality that continues to increase illness and shorten lives (Keating, 2016); the rise in overt racism, anti-LGBTQ activism, and misogyny in many forms; and a political system slow to enact changes.

What to do? And not do? The first step is to acknowledge the crisis and not look away or dismiss the concerns as an overreaction—the “snowflake” take that is thoroughly refuted when we look at the clear biological effects of a stress pandemic (Fava et al., 2019).

A second misdirection to avoid is to ignore these existential stressors in favor of the seemingly more manageable phenomenon of “screen time” and “social media.” There is modest evidence that this poses some risks for kids who are already vulnerable, but as an account of the source of an epidemic of adolescent sadness, hopelessness, and suicidality, it falls well short.

While we need to study and implement the best ways to help kids cope with these burdens, mitigating or ameliorating their impact, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is anything like a remedy for the stress pandemic. Psychologists should not "stay in their lane" by helping kids with the consequences of loading them up with stressors and ignoring the roots of those existential stressors. They, and everyone, should be working hard to reduce those stressors at the source.

The only long-term solution lies in making structural changes to society that can foster human development at a population level.

This is the upside of adolescent risk-taking that is too often overlooked. What the next generation needs most is understanding and support for coping and joining with them in the tough struggle to create a healthier society.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Fava, G. A., McEwen, B. S., Guidi, J., Gostoli, S., Offidani, E., & Sonino, N. (2019). Clinical characterization of allostatic overload. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 108, 94-101. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.05.028

Guyer, A. E. (2020). Adolescent psychopathology: The role of brain‐based diatheses, sensitivities, and susceptibilities. Child Development Perspectives, 14(2), 104–109.

Keating, D. (2016). Social Inequality in Population Developmental Health: An Equity and Justice Issue. Adv Child Dev Behav, 50, 75-104. doi:10.1016/bs.acdb.2015.12.002

Ruck, M. D., Keating, D. P., Saewyc, E. M., Earls, F., & Ben, A. A. (2016). The United Nations Convention on the rights of the child: Its relevance for adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 16–29.

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