The Teen Mental Health Crisis: How Do We Respond?
Mere decades ago, the major threats to the health and well-being of young people in the West were nearly all external, such as illness, car accidents, risky sexual behavior, alcohol, or smoking. Today, the greatest threats to the health and well-being of young people are internal.
Teen mental health has never been this bad.
As New York Times journalists Michael Barbaro and Matt Richtel discussed last week on The Daily podcast, we’re facing an unprecedented crisis in teen mental health. Mere decades ago, the major threats to the health and well-being of young people in the West were nearly all external, such as illness, car accidents, risky sexual behavior, alcohol, or smoking. Today, the greatest threats to the health and well-being of young people are internal. As Richtel reported, in 2019, 13% of all adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60% increase from 2007. Teen suicide rates, which had been stable for nearly a decade prior to 2007, “leapt nearly 60% by 2018.” In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced, “Mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions as the most common reasons children have impairments and limitations.”
The factors behind this tsunami of depression, anxiety, and self-harm are many, one of which is the internet. In 2017, Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University noted that the spike in adolescent mental health problems reached a crescendo in 2012. That year, the percentage of Americans who owned smartphones surpassed 50%. Exposing developing brains to an overwhelming amount of social information, she argued, was contributing to a massive, unprecedented uptick in mental health issues.
On one hand, social media has brought the near constant experience of social comparison to the developing minds of 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds. On the other hand, the sheer amount of panicked, hyperbolized, and truly frightening headlines a student must navigate is unprecedented in human history. We might forgive students who are convinced the world is completely out of control.
Richtel and Barbaro also noted other factors in the podcast. For example, the average age for the onset of puberty has become earlier and earlier since the 1980s, especially for girls. Experts are unsure as to exactly why this is the case, but there are plenty of correlations having to do with early exposure to sexually explicit material, fatherlessness, and family breakdown. Whatever the cause, the impact is real.
In the face of this exploding mental health crisis among young people, the demand for care is outpacing the number of trained counselors and psychologists. Pediatricians and emergency rooms have become first responders. As Richtel observed, “Every night, in emergency rooms across the country, there are at least 1,000 young people spending the night waiting in a room to get to the next level of care where they can be helped.”
More and more frequently, medication is seen as the only answer. While an important tool, Ritchie notes why that is far from adequate. “We are prescribing medications in the absence of dealing with… fundamental structural changes that we have not addressed as a society.”
In every generation, followers of Christ have seen protecting and caring for vulnerable children as a crucial part of their calling. Today, children are vulnerable to radically changing social conditions, harmful ideas about their minds and bodies, the loss of institutions crucial to their health and well-being, and a barrage of bad news.
The first step in fulfilling our calling is, in the words of my friend Dr. Matthew Sleeth, to Hope Always. Children need the truth about life and the world, about themselves and God, and we can give it to them. Of course, parents must limit and help guide children in their digital interactions, as nearly all experts recognize. But this is not merely a crisis of media: It’s a crisis of meaninglessness. That’s one reason a Harvard psychologist writing in Scientific American argued that “Psychiatry needs to get right with God.”
To that end, we’ve developed a new Colson Center Educators course taught by Dr. Matthew Sleeth to equip parents, pastors, and educators, with the tools to meet the current crisis.
Also, tonight, is the latest in our Lighthouse Voices series. “Despair, Mental Health, and the Crisis of Meaning: How Christians Can Speak Life to a Lost Culture” is a live event featuring Dr. Ryan Burkhart of Colorado Christian University. To register for the live event in Holland, Michigan, or the livestream, visit the Lighthouse Voices page.
Christians have an obligation to care. When we see the brokenness of the world around us, we are to imitate the work of Christ. In His name, we can be a force for good in our lifetimes, and, God willing, reverse the tide.
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