American teenagers are desperately unhappy
Christian psychiatrists and counselors weigh in on a study showing huge declines in high schoolers’ mental well-being
American teenagers suffer from historically low emotional and mental states, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
On Feb. 13, the CDC released data collected in the fall of 2021 that included teenagers’ self-reported mental health and suicidal ideation. Teenage girls and those who did not identify as heterosexual fared the worst. While the CDC suggests better-equipped schools are the way forward, Christian psychiatrists offer a more holistic understanding of why America’s teens are in anguish and how they can flourish.
High school girls reported both feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide at double the rate of high school boys. Nearly three in five teenage girls (57 percent) said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, up from 36 percent in 2011. Thirty percent said they seriously considered suicide, up from 19 percent in 2011. Teenage boys experienced a milder uptick in depression, up from 19 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2021. The number of teenage boys who considered suicide remained almost unchanged in the last decade, moving from 13 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2021.
Sixty-nine percent of teens who did not identify as heterosexual reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021, while 45 percent considered suicide. The report did not provide 10-year trend data for sexual identity.
The CDC called for more school-based programs to reverse these alarming trends. “Schools can provide education that equips teens with essential skills, such as understanding and ensuring true sexual consent, managing emotions, and asking for what they need,” the CDC said.
Dr. Karl Benzio, medical director of the American Association of Christian Counselors and of Honey Lake Clinic in Greenville, Fla., sees these trends as the result of our society’s moral relativism. Benzio explained that when people stop believing in absolute truth, the resulting array of self-defined realities conflict. “My needs are going to collide against your needs,” he said.
Benzio argued this conflict ultimately pits person against person. This dog-eat-dog mindset leaves teenagers, who are at an already difficult and confusing stage in their development, feeling like they can’t trust anyone. “That’s going to create a lot of worry, a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure,” he said.
Benzio thinks social media contributes significantly to teenage girls’ unhappiness. He noted that girls are more likely to seek validation and acceptance on social media platforms, but online relationships are less meaningful than in-person ones.
Beth Broom, a licensed professional counselor and executive director of the online Christian Trauma Healing Network, said that because girls tend to be more emotionally sensitive, social media can elevate feelings of rejection and unhealthy comparison. “Social media is giving us this front-facing ‘here’s my life and it’s wonderful,’” Broom said. “And then we’re looking at that and comparing that to the worst version of ourselves.”
The CDC report suggested a more inclusive school environment would improve the health and wellbeing of non-heterosexual youth. But Benzio said sexual confusion and same-sex attraction are psychological issues. Simply affirming these identities does not address underlying traumas that could be contributing to adolescents’ deep unhappiness. Childhood sexual abuse, early exposure to pornography, or an absent parent are some factors that could influence a teenager toward seeking a same-sex partner.
Julie Lowe, a licensed professional counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Glenside, Pa., explained that unchecked affirmation creates a crisis in kids. In her practice, kids from families that are big on affirmation and skimpy on rules often desire more boundaries. “I’ve had kids say, ‘I wish my parents would ground me,’ or ‘I wish they would give me a curfew, so I knew they cared about what happens to me,’” she said.
Lowe also stressed that parents, not school employees, should be the primary educators of their children. She fears that messaging from the CDC and major cultural institutions is pushing for the replacement of parents’ authority in their children’s lives.
Broom encourages parents to build relationships with their teens and pre-teens that allow more open dialogue. She said responding to alarming news from a teen with panic will dissuade him or her from sharing difficult things. Broom recommended setting aside time once a week to chat. If parents use this time to listen rather than give advice, it’s more likely a teen will confide in parents when they struggle with something tough, like depression or sexual confusion.