An unprecedented mental health crisis for adolescent girls

Responding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2011-2021, an article in The Atlantic attempts to make sense of the historic levels of anxiety and depression being reported by today’s teens, especially girls and those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (the survey does not track trans identity). 

The survey, which is the definitive measure of youth behavior and mental health in the country, found nearly 60 percent of teenage girls reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”, and that the share contemplating suicide grew by 50 percent since 2011. The article explores several possible drivers, including a pandemic-induced effect that could subside, pervasive exposure to social media, the normalization of discussing mental distress, and the outcome of growing up with ongoing crises like school shootings and climate change. But none of the explanations fully accounts for the alarming crisis, nor do any of them present easily workable solutions.

The Gist: Echoing the drug overdose epidemic, the unfolding crisis in teen mental health is difficult for providers to address because many victims don’t access healthcare services until their conditions deteriorate to the point of requiring hospitalization, often from a suicide attempt or an overdose.

And when teenagers in mental health crisis present to emergency departments, hospitals are often forced to board them for days, as the number of psychiatric treatment facilities for teens has dropped by 30 percent from 2012 to 2020.

These data should be a call for providers to focus more upstream diagnosis and care, by partnering with children, families, schools, and other community organizations.

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