Ever since February, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared its survey data on teen girls' skyrocketing anxiety, sadness and suicidal thoughts, the focus has been on what might be causing this level of suffering. But there's an answer in the data, staring us right in the face.
According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data, nearly 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls (57%) felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021. That's the highest level reported over the past decade and nearly twice what boys reported. Thirty percent of teen girls said they have seriously considered dying by suicide -- a percentage that's risen by nearly 60% over the past 10 years.
It's useful to note that this survey was taken while there were still significant disruptions in teens' lives from the pandemic. But let's explore some of the other factors involved.
To find out what might be driving this rise in mental health troubles, especially for teenage girls, I turned to two experts on the St. Louis Regional Suicide Prevention Coalition. Liz Sale, research associate professor for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studies and tracks suicide data in the state. Elizabeth Makulec is the executive director for Kids Under Twenty One, a nonprofit that works to improve the emotional well-being of young people.
Research has documented that frequent social media use has a detrimental effect on teen mental health, particularly for girls. Makulec pointed out that while social media also offers some positive aspects, like exposure to new ideas and connection with others, it carries risks like deteriorating self-esteem and bullying.
"I can't tell you the number of times that social media comes up as an issue," Sale said in agreement. Parents often don't even realize that their young children can access sites without their knowledge.
Other factors that Makulec and Sale agree have made adolescence more challenging: increased competitiveness, pressure and schedule demands on high school students; stress and anxiety among caregivers, parents and teachers; and awareness of bleak social and political realities, such as school shootings and climate change.
"There's an overwhelming uncertainty of what the world is going to look like when (a young person) becomes an adult," Makulec said. "There's a lot of uncertainty, ugliness and hatefulness going on, and there's only so much that people can tolerate."
Teaching children at all ages how to cope with difficult feelings and challenging circumstances has to be a fundamental part of education. Learning coping skills should start at the youngest possible ages, building on that knowledge and training as children grow, they said. Young people have become more comfortable talking about mental health and can learn strategies that become a part of their everyday wellness.
There were two other statistics in the survey data that immediately jumped out at me:
-- Nearly 1 in 5 teen girls (18%) said they had experienced sexual violence in the past year -- up 20% since 2017, when the CDC started monitoring this.
-- About 1 in 7 teen girls (14%) reported having been forced to have sex -- up 27% since 2019, when the CDC began monitoring this.
Some of these increases may be attributable to a growing willingness to talk about sexual violence, but these are unacceptably high levels, regardless. Consider that in a classroom of 20 girls, two have reported being raped.
It makes sense that a population experiencing rising levels of violence and trauma would report higher levels of anxiety and sadness.
"Any time you don't feel safe, feel you may be victimized, it causes you to be on edge and fearful," Makulec explained. Remaining hyperattentive or hypervigilant in an effort to keep oneself safe from sexual violence feeds a cycle of anxiety.
The solutions to address this issue go beyond teaching coping skills.
Unlike the internal work required by girls to build resilience, reducing their exposure to sexual violence demands external work -- from parents, educators, school administrators and law enforcement. From boys and men.
If parents and schools fail to educate boys about what consent looks like, boys will instead pick up cues from a toxic culture: politicians who brag about grabbing women's crotches, YouTube influencers who spout a hatred of women, and porn that fetishizes violence and degradation.
Too many parents are in denial about these messages their sons are constantly given. And too many educators are dismissive of the threats, harassment and violence girls say they've experienced.
If we are truly concerned about girls' mental health, we have to look outside their internal emotional world and also fix the broken real world.