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The Adolescent Mental Health Crisis: Our Experts Weigh In

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The Adolescent Mental Health Crisis: Our Experts Weigh In

In the years following the pandemic, many people are struggling with their mental health.

But according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teens are faring the worst. The numbers show 4 out of every 10 U.S. high schoolers experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Nearly a quarter considered attempting suicide.

Impacted the most are teen girls and LGBTQ youth, with almost 60% reporting feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. Among girls, 30% said they seriously considered attempting suicide, double the rate among boys and up almost 60% from the past 10 years. Of LGBTQ students, nearly half stated they had seriously considered a suicide attempt.

How should we be thinking about adolescent mental health today? What are some of the causes driving this crisis? How can parents help their teens navigate this difficult developmental period?

For answers, we spoke with Melissa Baker, MS, LMFT, Director of Integrated Health at our Glendale Healthcare Center; Rochelle Ryan, LPC, Clinical Site Director at our West Valley Healthcare Center; and Rachel Wahle, LMFT, JFCS Director of Case Management and Health Navigation Services.

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, attributed adolescent mental health as “the defining public health crisis of our time.” Do you agree?

Rachel Wahle: Yes. Suicides have gone up and the number of people looking for mental health services has increased. In many areas of the U.S., there are not enough mental health professionals to meet the need.

Rochelle Ryan: I agree. Importance is not always placed on mental health. There is still the stigma that mental health is not the same as physical health and that people should be able to get over mental health issues on their own.

In years past, other generations have faced mental health challenges. What’s different today?

Rochelle Ryan: The current generation has more technology but fewer in-person interactions. They have not experienced life without the internet or social media. Children play video games with friends from different locations instead of playing games in person.

Melissa Baker: The good news is that there appears to be less stigma around teens reaching out for mental health services than in previous decades. Our clinicians often report that their new clients were encouraged to start therapy by their peers. This, in addition to schools focusing on mindfulness strategies and coping skills, and more celebrities opening up about their use of therapy, continue to decrease the stigma around mental health.

What are some of the causes driving the mental health crisis among young people?

Melissa Baker: The day-to-day experiences of teens have changed. There is the pervasiveness of social media, increased inaccessibility of third spaces [social surroundings that are separate from the home and workplace environments] to engage with friends, and decreased hopefulness about their future. Because of economic uncertainty, there is also an increased likelihood that couples with children who divorce will continue to live in the same household. This causes conflict and discomfort in the adolescent’s home environment.

Rochelle Ryan: The current generation feels pressured to be a certain way and achieve certain things in life. They can have unrealistic perceptions of what life is really like. They do not yet have a filter to understand that what is portrayed online and through social media is not always real.

What keeps young people from seeking help?

Melissa Baker: For some families, seeing a therapist is viewed as “airing your dirty laundry.” Adults can minimize the severity of kids’ mental health concerns as well. They may think they aren’t important enough to warrant outside help (like peer drama) or believe that a teen’s emotional expression is attention-seeking and not genuine.

Rachel Wahle: Not having enough knowledge about mental health and the services that are available; being self-conscious about how their peers will view them; seeing an adult they don’t know or trust; and the cost of services (monetarily and time spent).

Rochelle Ryan: A lack of information and understanding about mental health and the services that are available. Also, there is still the stigma that it’s not normal to have a mental health concern or to seek help for one.

Melissa Baker, Rochelle Ryan, Rachel WahleFrom left: Melissa Baker, Rochelle Ryan and Rachel Wahle

How can parents tell the difference between normal teen angst and signs of anxiety or depression?

Rachel Wahle: All people experience anxiety and depression. When it becomes chronic, it’s no longer a temporary fear, sadness or worry, but something that doesn’t go away and gets worse over time.

In adolescence, anxiety turns inward. Teens are more worried or anxious about themselves, how others perceive them and fitting in. To a parent, teen anxiety could look like perfectionism, a sudden drop in grades, and changes in behavior, such as being irritable all the time or no longer wanting to participate in activities or social events.

Rochelle Ryan: If parents notice decreased functioning in their teen’s major life areas such as school or personal relationships, they should pay attention. Anxiety and depression can show as behavioral changes that do not resolve over time versus short situational symptoms or behavioral changes.

Melissa Baker: One way to tell the difference is through listening. Often, teens will come right out and tell adults they’re not doing well. In an attempt to be positive, adults will sometimes provide general support and encouragement. This unintentionally minimizes the severity of what the teen is feeling. Adults may also be working through their own traumas and stressors. If this is the case, they need to ask other adults or professionals to provide the support their teen needs.

What steps should you take if you’re worried that your teen might be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts?

Rachel Wahle: If there is an urgent concern about someone thinking about suicide, call the Suicide Hotline at 988. If you believe someone is an active danger to themselves, call 911. If there is no immediate concern, talk to your teen about their feelings and don’t dismiss them. Monitor their social media, medications, and safely store (lock up) items they could use to harm themselves, such as firearms, medications, chemicals, and alcohol. Reach out to a local mental health professional for assessments and support services and follow through with any appointments. A good way to find a mental health professional is to call the member services number on the back of your insurance card and ask for more information or a referral.

Rochelle Ryan: Parents should talk with teens about how they are feeling and normalize any feelings or sadness or depression. Getting treatment for mental health issues is not any different than getting treatment for physical health issues.

What else can you do to help with a young person's mental health?

Rachel Wahle: As a parent, some of the best things you can do for your child’s mental health is to talk to them and ask questions. Encourage them to tell you how they’re feeling and really listen to them. We tend to want to fix problems for our kids, but that can make them feel like we aren’t listening or taking them seriously. Instead, offer to talk through and brainstorm ways they can move forward. Work together to come up with options and possible solutions. This will increase their ability to analyze and problem-solve on their own as an adult, instead of relying on others to be the fixer.

It's also not said enough that parents need to set an example. Kids see and hear more than you think. Look internally at how you handle your own stress and mental health so you can model positive coping skills for your child.

Rochelle Ryan: Watch and monitor the use of social media. Discuss how social media is often not a complete or accurate representation of real life. Make sure that young people are participating in activities that build their self-esteem and are interacting with others in-person.

What resources does JFCS provide in the way of mental health for young people?

Rachel Wahle: JFCS provides services for therapy, behavioral supports, parent supports, psychiatric evaluations, medications (if indicated), and primary care services. We can also refer other agencies for additional services if clinically indicated. The idea is to wrap our young people in support.