How America is grappling with its teen mental health crisis

Mary Oliver, a high school senior in the Silver Spring area of Maryland, was on…

How America is grappling with its teen mental health crisis
How America is grappling with its teen mental health crisis

Mary Oliver, a high school senior in the Silver Spring area of Maryland, was on a waitlist for two years before she finally started seeing a therapist. 

“So many other students were struggling with similar things as me. And there just wasn’t enough therapists in the area to allow everyone to get that help,” Oliver told The Hill.

Oliver is among millions of young Americans whose formative years were upturned by the COVID-19 pandemic, and policymakers at the federal and state level only starting to come to terms with the scale of the crisis and how to respond.

Isolation during lockdown, disconnection from others and a rise in substance abuse have all contributed to worsening mental health outcomes among adolescents. And while kids were able to stay in touch through social media, that had its own damaging effects on their states of mind.

Various studies have linked social media to higher rates of loneliness, anxiety and depression in young people, with one report released last year finding its negative association with mental health was worse than binge drinking,  sexual assault or hard drug use.

Other recent studies have painted a bleak picture of overall youth mental health. 

A KFF analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that 50 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 reported experiencing symptoms anxiety and depression in 2023. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in April laying out an alarming picture of youth mental health.

Roughly one in three female high school students said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months before the survey was conducted and nearly one in four said they had made a plan. The 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey also found that the prevalence of reported suicide attempts was 13.3 percent among female students.

Male students reported lower rates of considering, planning and attempting suicide. One out of five high school students reported witnessing community violence, which the CDC noted is associated with suicide risk and substance abuse.

These factors compound the anxieties accumulated over the course of the pandemic, and could result in young people being less equipped to effectively handle future hardships and setbacks.

“If you face a huge number of risk factors, then you’re not as likely to adapt and recover as well. So if you’ve had multiple losses of life in your family and financial losses and you didn’t have the support, then that’s going to affect you more,” said Mary Karapetian Alvord, a psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents with anxiety and mood disorders.

Much of Alvord’s work deals with building resilience, a person’s ability to cope with challenges. That requires a sufficient degree of social support, and Alvord noted that many people lost access to avenues of support during the pandemic.

For many, mental health resources have only recently become available to them as the worst aspects of the pandemic subside.

Oliver was a freshman when the pandemic began and is now preparing for college as the end of the public health emergency approaches. 

“From my personal experience coming out of quarantine, I think it definitely affected my ability to socialize with others,” Oliver said. “I would just get very anxious because it has been so long without interacting with people in such an open environment like school.”

For Oliver, therapy has been helpful with setting goals and identifying good resources for support. As she gets ready for college, Oliver has concerns of starting over from scratch, finding a new therapist and possibly being placed on a waitlist again.

Making the decision to seek therapy in the first place was already difficult for the teen, whose immigrant parents viewed therapy as more of a “westernized” concept. 

Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) can relate to the struggles of today’s teenagers. 

“When I was in high school, I had to essentially hide from my parents that I had taken myself to see the school counselor who then referred me to an outside psychiatrist until I had the courage to tell my parents that I needed help,” the freshman lawmaker told The Hill.

Balint described the depression and anxiety she experienced as a high school senior as “debilitating.”

The Vermont congresswoman, who worked as a grade school teacher for many years before entering politics, recently introduced legislation aimed at providing mental health training to school staff, students and parents. 

The bill would award grants to schools to fund mental health first aid training that would help people to recognize symptoms of mental health disorders in children and adolescents as well as provide education on the available resources.

“I know that if I had had some tools and if people were talking openly about mental health without all this stigma attached to it, that I would have been better prepared to deal with it within my own life,” Balint said. “And certainly be a better advocate and ally of other students in my life who are also struggling.”

Millions in federal grants targeting youth mental health have been sent out in the past year. The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded a slew of grants to support youth mental health resources, with funds going towards in-school programs, family organizations and outreach efforts. Much of these grants were directed through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed last year.

During a recent discussion with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Surgeon General Vivek Murthy touched on the impact the recent rounds of funding have had on the mental health landscape.

“What’s been happening over the last year plus is that there has been more and more money that the administration, working with Congress, has been putting into building out the local networks so that we can shorten wait times,” said Murthy. 

He added that many people have found counselors through 988, the 24-hour suicide and crisis lifeline. “We want more people to know about it,” he said.  

But Sanders said policymakers also need to focus on creating a healthier society overall. 

“We can’t simply treat our way out of this crisis. Half the country is going to be counseling the other half. That’s not going to happen. We need to better understand the causes and how as a society we can short-term and long-term address that,” the senator said in his talk with Murthy.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, lauded recent bipartisan action taken to support mental health.

“The next step is getting the word out. These grants and programs only make a difference if state and municipal governments are aware of them and apply to participate,” he said. “Now, the mission is to secure local leadership to ensure these resources reach the children in need.”

Murthy acknowledged the many barriers remaining between patients and mental health treatment: people still “have to drive too far, they have to wait too long, they can’t afford” it. But he sees things headed in the right direction. 

“I actually feel quite optimistic and hopeful when I think about the mental health challenges we face because as big as our problems are I actually do think there’s a lot we can do and a lot of it’s starting to happen already,” said Murthy.

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