There’s More than Meets the Eye in Teen Mental Health Crisis, Experts Say
On Monday, The New York Times reported on new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that the rate of sadness among U.S. teenagers is at its highest level in a decade, with almost three in five girls reporting “persistent sadness” in 2021 — double the rate of boys. Strikingly, almost 70% of teens who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual “reported feeling sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year.”
As has been documented by mental health experts in recent years, the spike in depression has coincided with the near universal presence of smartphones and social media apps. “Kids are now vulnerable to cyberbullying and critical comments, like ‘I hate you,’ ‘Nobody likes you,’” Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Northwell Health, told the Times. “It’s like harpoons to their heart every time.”
Mental health experts are also pointing to the pandemic as a major factor contributing to the crisis, saying that social isolation is one of the major risk factors for depression.
Still, could something deeper be going on?
Dr. Jennifer Bauwens thinks so. Bauwens, who formerly worked as a clinician providing trauma-focused treatment to children, currently serves as director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council. She acknowledged how the pandemic amplified the rise in depression and suicidal thoughts that has been occurring since 2011 but pointed to other important factors missing from the current discourse.
“One thing that I don’t see tied into these discussions or in the explanation of the data is that they don’t look at the broader social influences, such as the education system,” she told The Washington Stand. “In so many curriculums, there’s the idea of, ‘You can decide your identity.’ So the very time period when kids need direction and help and affirmation about their identity, they’re told, ‘You gotta find it.’ There’s no rudder. The very basic building blocks of who we are have been destroyed. So it’s not even that we have to figure out what we want to do with our career in life or who do we like, now we have to figure out, are we actually really a biological male or female?”
While also acknowledging the rise in face-to-face disconnection through increased social media use, Bauwens emphasized the increase in unstable home environments as another major factor.
“You see a downward trajectory in the number of secure attachments — the number of young people that are securely attached to a caregiver. So you have these kids that are looking for connection, and they’re often met with adults in their school system that are giving them no sense of a strong rudder to their identity. And then you have their peers who are also going through the same thing.”
Bauwens went on to highlight a disconnect in the study between sexual violence and suicide.
“We already know that people who have [gay, lesbian, and bisexual] identities have higher rates of abuse and sexual violence,” she noted. “This is really important because that kind of trauma is often one of the strongest predictors for having suicidal ideation and thoughts and high levels of depression. With that, [there’s a] sense of being [un]able to manage these overwhelming feelings, which would lead someone to relieve pain through extreme measures. That is often missing in the discourse because there isn’t that connection — especially when we hear the transgender discourse, that this is ‘preventative care’ to prevent suicide. But actually, there are all these other preexisting issues that we are looking at that are higher among that community.”
Bauwens further observed that the study contradicted the common theory that bullying is a primary cause of depression for LGBT-identifying teens. “They’ve basically said, ‘People have more mental health problems because of bullying.’ But here you have something that is in direct opposition because of this fact.”
Still, Bauwens sees a silver lining in the data. “The good news with this is that it gives more evidence that there are other things going on with this population that are not being addressed. As a clinician, this breaks my heart. There are other factors for the presenting issue[s] of suicide and depression. Here we are finally seeing some of that get peeled back and we can start looking at the root issues.”
According to Bauwens, one challenge that continues to remain is the pressure in the clinical world to toe the politically correct line.
“[T]here [has been] such a cooling in the therapeutic community. The messaging that’s been around this issue says, ‘You are distressed because of how society views you.’ If that’s what you’re told, you’re not going to have a lot of motivation to look for root issues. At the same time, you’re not going to have many clinicians who feel free to address those root issues because they’re going to feel compelled to affirm the current discourse.”
Bauwens also highlighted the stable level of serious suicide attempts since 2011 as particularly instructive.
“What that tells me is that people, particularly women, tend to attempt suicide with less lethal means. There’s more attempts and more ideation, but stable levels of serious attempts. … It makes me think that there’s a lot of internal pain that doesn’t have an avenue for expression. This is all the more reason for us to take away these counseling bans and these things that keep us from being able to look at those root issues. Because these kids are crying out for help, they’re definitely giving expressions of pain. … [A]ll of this data points to other root issues going on that are not being properly assessed and addressed by our current discourse.
Despite the study’s bleak findings, Bauwens thinks the serious nature of the crisis will eventually force the clinical world to look more into the underlying causes of depression among adolescents.
“I think we are getting to a better place,” she told TWS. “People are starting to wake up.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.