Mental Health

Poor Mental Health is a Growing Problem for Adolescents

Adolescence is a time for young people to have a healthy start in life. The number of adolescents reporting poor mental health is increasing. Building strong bonds and connecting to youth can protect their mental health. Schools and parents can create these protective relationships with students and help them grow into healthy adulthood.

Mental Health Is A Growing Problem

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CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report: 2009-2019pdf icon highlights concerning trends about the mental health of U.S. high school students.

  • More than 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009.
  • In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.
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Some groups are more affected than others.

  • These feelings were found to be more common among lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and female students.
  • Almost half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students not sure of their sexual identity reported they had seriously considered suicide—far more than heterosexual students.
  • The number of black students who reported attempting suicide in 2019 rose by almost 50%.

Why Is This a Big Deal?

Poor mental health in adolescence is more than feeling blue. It can impact many areas of a teen’s life. Youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision making, and their health.

Mental health problems in youth often go hand-in-hand with other health and behavioral risks like increased risk of drug use, experiencing violence, and higher risk sexual behaviors than can lead to HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Because many health behaviors and habits are established in adolescence that will carry over into adult years, it is very important to help youth develop good mental health.

The Good News

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The good news is that teens are resilient, and we know what works to support their mental health: feeling connected to school and family.

  • Fortunately, the same prevention strategies that promote mental health—like helping students feel connected to school/family—help prevent a range of negative experiences, like drug use and violence.
  • Building strong bonds and relationships with adults and friends at school, at home and in the community provides youth with a sense of connectedness.
  • This feeling of connectedness is important and can protect adolescents from poor mental health, and other risks like drug use and violence.
  • Youth need to know someone cares about them. Connections can be made virtually or in person.

There is a Role for Everyone in Supporting Teen Mental Health

As we’ve learned nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are critical in our communities to supporting children and families. While the expectation is that schools provide education, they also provide opportunities for youth to engage in physical activity and academic, social, mental health, and physical health services, all of which can relieve stress and help protect against negative outcomes.

However, the pandemic has disrupted many school-based services, increasing the burden on parents, increasing stress on families, and potentially affecting long-term health outcomes for parents and children alike, especially among families already at risk for negative health outcomes from social and environmental factors.

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Support is needed to mitigate these negative outcomes and lessen educational and health disparities.

Critical supports and services need to be comprehensive and community wide and should include:

What schools can do:

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  • Helping schools provide safe and supportive environments—whether in person or virtually—is critical to students’ wellbeing.
    • Linking students to mental health services.
    • Integrating social emotional learning.
    • Training staff.
    • Supporting staff mental health.
    • Reviewing discipline policies to ensure equity.
    • Building safe and supportive environments.

What parents and families can do:

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  • Communicate openly and honestly, including about their values.
  • Supervise their adolescent to facilitate healthy decision-making.
  • Spend time with their adolescent enjoying shared activities.
  • Become engaged in school activities and help with homework.
  • Volunteer at their adolescent’s school.
  • Communicate regularly with teachers and administrators.

What healthcare providers can do:

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  • Ask adolescents about family relationships and school experiences as a part of routine health screenings.
  • Encourage positive parenting practices.
  • Engage parents in discussions about how to connect with their adolescents, communicate effectively, and monitor activities and health behaviors.
  • Educate parents and youth about adolescent development and health risks.