A Growing Mental Health Crisis Among Teen Girls—Locally and Nationally

A recent report shared by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) details record-high levels of sadness and despair among teenagers in America—and specifically, a worsening outlook for adolescent girls and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

Based on a national youth survey of 17,000 high school students in the fall of 2021, the data reveals that nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless—double the rate of boys and the highest level reported over the past decade.

Katelyn Merz, director of CHD’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services Clinic in Easthampton, said she is finding similar concerns among adolescents served there. “Unfortunately, we are seeing this among all genders,” she said. “Many teens are reporting having few friends or even no friends, a sense of not belonging, a lack of motivation to attend school or anxiety surrounding school attendance, minimal involvement with social supports or connections, and feeling inferior to others, to name a few issues.”

Merz said she wasn’t surprised by the report because she has seen many youths struggling in the community where she works, and she has long discussed this mental health crisis with colleagues and community partners. “However, seeing the actual numbers and reading the breakdown amongst certain groups, made me very sad,” she said.

According to the report, entitled the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly one in three teen girls (30 percent) reported seriously considered attempting suicide—a 60 percent increase from a decade ago.

One in five (18 percent) teen girls experienced sexual violence in the past year—up 20 percent since 2017, and almost 15 percent of them said they had been forced to have sex in their lifetime—a 27 percent increase since 2019.

Particularly troubling, said Merz, is the finding that more than half (52 percent) of LGBTQ+ teens had recently experienced poor mental health and, concerningly, that more than one in five (22 percent) attempted suicide in the past year. “Every teen—every person for that matter—wants to belong, deserves to feel they belong, and they also want and deserve to feel safe,” said Merz. “It is very heartbreaking to see how often neither of these exist for LBGTQ+ teens, and the distress that inevitably brings.”

As for the causes driving mental health problems among teens, since the release of the report, experts have mentioned such factors as an increase in early puberty in girls (studies since the 1980s have confirmed this), gender discrimination, anxiety about the world teens will inherit (including climate change impacts and rampant school shootings), along with the COVID pandemic—even though prior to the pandemic, the rates of mental health concerns and suicide among youth had been rising for at least a decade. Social media has also been named as a culprit—with its cyberbullying, users’ insecurity about their appearance, and the lack of in-person social contact all contributing to the decline in mental health.

Merz feels that social media can indeed play a very negative role in some lives, especially because it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in comparisons so readily available at one’s fingertips. “Comparison can be so detrimental to anyone, especially teens working to discover who they are and who they hope to become,” she said. “The mindless scrolling of content, whether positive or negative, also aids in isolation and time spent away from external factors that may create those positive, vital learning experiences for teens—friends, clubs, sports, etc. I often wonder what it would have been like as a teenager if I had social media so readily available, and then I am quickly thankful that I did not.”

The report suggests that schools can play a crucial role in facing these mental health challenges, pointing out that more than 95 percent of children and adolescents in the US spend much of their daily lives in school. “This provides a considerable opportunity to foster the knowledge, skills and support needed to help prevent and reduce the negative impact of violence and other trauma and improve mental health,” according to the report. “The CDC has identified and supports a range of evidence-based activities that can make a profound difference in the lives of teens with a relatively small infusion of support to our schools.”

Merz agrees with this assessment, noting that anything that schools can do to bring awareness to these topics can only help. “School makes up a huge percentage of a young person’s life,” she said, “so helping teachers be equipped to have open conversations, having enough mental health resources available, and getting creative with the mental health agencies in their area are all ways that I think can support a solution to the overall problem.”

Know a teen who is struggling? CHD can help. Call 1-844-CHD-HELP to set up an appointment.