The state of the teen mental health crisis — and how to help

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

By Erica Pandey, Reprinted from Axios

Never have so many kids reported being so sad and stressed.

Why it matters: The American Academy of Pediatrics declared the mental health crisis among children and teens a national emergency.

Zoom out: Consider these troubling stats, reported by Axios health care editor Tina Reed.

  • Mental distress: More than 40% of teens said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during 2021, a CDC survey found.
  • Risky behavior: The same survey found increased use of alcohol and drugs during the shutdown.
  • Abuse: 55% reported emotional abuse from a parent or other adult in the home. Over 10% reported physical abuse.

Here’s how all of us — parents, relatives, friends, mentors — can help:

  1. Look for outward signs that something’s wrong — rapid weight gain or loss, falling grades, mood swings, frequent headaches and fatigue. Don’t avert your gaze.
  2. Don’t just watch ask. Young people want attention and questions, even if they act otherwise.
  3. Read between the lines. “We look at kids who are irritable or angry, and we say they’re bad or mad,” says Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. “That’s how they show they’re sad.”
  4. Call in professionals. If the price is steep, start with cheap or free resources at the child’s pediatrician’s office, school or house of worship. All those places have adults trained to counsel. Here’s a guide for broaching therapy with teens.
  5. Insist on answers. Don’t assume specialists are omniscient. Seek second opinions. If they prescribe medication, follow up with them on why and the side effects. Alcohol often causes problems when mixed with meds. Help teens understand this.”

Here are two common pitfalls when helping teens, Emily Pluhar, an adolescent psychologist at Harvard, tells us:

  1. Tiptoeing when worried: “People are so afraid to ask about things like self-harm and suicide because they’re afraid they’ll suggest it,” she says. “No data shows that that’s true. So be as direct as possible.”
  2. Fearing you’re endorsing: “If a teen says, ‘My life sucks,’ you can say: ‘I can see how you feel that way with what’s been going on’ — without agreeing.”

The bottom line: “You don’t need to have the perfect words,” Ginsburg says. “You just need to show up.”

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