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The Crisis of Declining Mental Health in Teens

Teens and young adults are experiencing a mental health crisis in the U.S. In the 10-24 age group, suicide is now the second leading cause of death in the United States. And for every suicide death, there are 25 attempts. This means that there are countless young people suffering from mental health issues who are not getting the help they need. So what is causing this pandemic of declining youth mental health? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

In December of 2021, The U.S. surgeon general issued a rare and serious advisory, warning of a “devastating” mental health crisis in teens. Symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled in young adults during the COVID pandemic, but evidence suggests the trend was actually already on the rise before schools closed and restrictions were in place.

Many organizations rallied support with increased funding for mental health services, as well as other actions, including more integration of mental health care into schools, more community-based support, and some strategies to increase the number of mental health providers.

Concerned about your child’s mental or emotional wellbeing? Schedule a visit with a qualified integrative pediatrician today.

While these efforts are all necessary to connect people to mental health resources, It's doubly important that parents and caregivers of school-aged children have tools to both identify and possibly prevent decline in their kids' mental and emotional wellbeing.

If you or a loved one are struggling, don’t wait to reach out. Help is available to you. Call 988 to receive free and confidential support using the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Mental health determinants

Adolescence proves to be an essential stage to develop social and emotional habits that help children develop coping habits, emotional regulation, and so many other skills that will help them in achieving good mental health.

These include adopting healthy sleeping habits, regular exercise habits, and learning to deal with emotions. Protective, safe, and supportive environments in families, schools, and communities are crucial.

Adolescent mental health is all that much more at risk as kids today are at an increased risk of psychological distress from school, social media, and sometimes their home environment. 

Related: 10 Mental Health Activities to Do with Your Children

What's changed?

Young adulthood is undergoing a drastic change. Three decades ago, the most serious public health threats to teenagers came from substance use like drugs and alcohol, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and smoking. Even though every single one of these have fallen sharply, they have been replaced by mental health concerns such as anxiety disorders, depression, destructive behavior, and self harm.

Here are few other challenges that may contribute to adolescent mental health disorders:

  • Busy schedules and a pressure to succeed. A culture of achievement puts immense pressure on kids to succeed. They are bombarded with messages—from peers, social media and even parents—that they need to be perfect. And they are constantly compared to others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
  • Lack of connection. The average teen spends as much as 9 hours in front of a screen, not including time spent doing schoolwork (1). They may not have the opportunity to develop close relationships with family and friends, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Inadequate coping skills. At a time when kids are exploring their identity and place in the world, they're heavily Exposed to judgment, comparison, and adult topics at an early age.
  • Poor sleep, physical health. Nationwide, approximately two thirds of U.S. high school students report sleeping <8 hours per night on school nights. This leads to poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance (2). 

The above factors increase the risk for common mental health disorders and contribute to a decline in adolescent mental health.

Read: How to Spot Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Mental health is health

Early signs of a mental health disorder often go unnoticed because of the simple fact that they're an "invisible" illness. For example, if your child has a broken arm or a fever, parents know that it's imperative they reach out to a professional who can help. While perhaps not immediately life threatening, these are issues that cannot go unchecked.

To contrast, if a teen seems irritable, less like themselves, or pulls away from activities they normally enjoy, it's not uncommon for these behaviors to be labeled "a phase" or a normal part of navigating the troublesome teenage years. While these behaviors do sometimes resolve as a child grows, they only do so as coping skills and emotional intelligence grow as well.

For children who display these warning signs of mental health issues, it's crucial that parents and caregivers recognize signs of mental illness and provide the appropriate support.

Not only does mental health affect overall health, but worsening mental health leads to problems with learning, self-worth, socialization, and other important developmental skills. In worst case scenarios, mental health problems can lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

What can you do to identify issues and strengthen your child’s mental resilience?

Want to learn more?

Foster communication and regular check-ins

Life is busy, and most parents will tell you it can be easy to go days without having a meaningful conversation with your teenager. Sometimes this is normal, other times it’s a sign you should make an effort to check in more.

Activities like family dinner, a hike on the weekend, a chance to talk on the ride to school, or catching up over a shopping trip on the weekend—these low-expectation, regular conversations are important. Relaxed, open-ended questions provide your child a chance to open up (and for you to listen) so you can keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in your teen’s world.

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, movement, and time outside

This one seems like a no-brainer, but getting enough sleep, movement, and time outside are crucial for mental health.

A good night’s sleep is critical for children as they grow. They need around eight to ten hours per night, but some may need more or less depending on their age. Lack of sleep may exacerbate a depressed mood and anxiety disorders in children.

Physical activity has been shown to improve mental health, so encourage your child to find an activity they enjoy and make it a part of their daily routine.

And finally, time spent outside in nature has been linked with lower rates of anxiety and depression (3). It doesn’t have to be a long hike in the woods; even spending 20 minutes walking the family dog around the block can make a difference.

Read: Best Essential Oils to Help Kids Deal with Stress

Make sure they’re getting nutrition for healthy brain development

Your child’s brain is developing many different connections during the teenage years. Hormones and other signaling molecules are hard at work, and this means that proper nutrition is doubly important.

Keep healthy, protein-packed breakfast options ready to go, (as this is something many teens struggle with) and try to limit their sugar consumption as much as possible. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and instead teach them about how different foods make them feel. This way, they’ll be more likely to make healthy decisions when on their own.

Fill in gaps in nutrition with Metagenics Chewable Multivitamin for Kids

Prioritize time to recharge

If you’ve ever overscheduled or overcommitted to something, you’re likely familiar with the mounting stress that seems to make even the tiny things totally overwhelming. Kids are susceptible to this too.

In a time when they’re learning to regulate their emotions, they need downtime to properly process. Make sure they’re not overscheduled with extracurriculars, schoolwork, and/or weekend activities, and that they have adequate free time to spend as they please, or doing things they enjoy.

Limit and monitor screen use

As we integrate more and more technology into our home, work, and school lives, being connected can be a double-edged sword. It can be a fun way to connect with friends and play games, but it can also lead to profound mental health problems.

In adolescents, kids are learning about their identity and where they fit in the world. The constant barrage of media can harm their sense of self-worth, confidence, and self-regulation. Talk to your child about how they use social media and other platforms. Encourage other forms of expression such as journaling, artwork, and talking with friends in person.

Make your home a safe space where your child feels comfortable being open with you

Teens will make mistakes, and they need to know that it’s okay to come to you with anything, big or small.

A safe haven is a place where a teen can be themselves without judgment. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they do, but it does mean that you should try to see things from their perspective and provide support and empathy instead of criticism.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have expectations about their behavior, but you should make it clear you love them no matter what and will always help them. No parent/child relationship is perfect, but making an effort to be more understanding can go a long way.

Get more tips and tricks: Back to School Healthy Toolkit

Pay attention to your own mental health

Children of all ages are incredibly intuitive, and one of the more influential aspects upon their mental health are the behaviors they see modeled in other adults in their lives.

If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety or depression, there’s a good chance your child has already picked up on it. Rather than trying to hide or ignore these feelings, explain to your kids (in as age-appropriate a way as possible) why you’re feeling this way, what happened, and how you’re addressing it. This can be through professional therapy, lifestyle changes, or other coping strategies.

Having an example of healthy coping behaviors will stick with them long after they reach adulthood. 

What to remember

By making mental health a priority, you can set your child up for success both now and in the future. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out to their pediatrician or a mental health professional for help.

Functional medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. This approach often requires working with other health care providers to address mental and emotional health from multiple angles.

To support mental and emotional health, functional medicine practitioners may recommend:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Craniosacral therapy
  • Meditation or mindfulness practices
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition and supplements
  • Sleep hygiene

If you’re interested in exploring functional medicine for mental and emotional health, talk to your child’s pediatrician or mental health professional about whether it may be a good fit for your family.

Resources 

  1. https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6703a1.htm?s_cid=mm6703a1_e 
  3. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/03/220302150329.htm

Tags

anxiety, depression, mental health, pediatrics


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