What We Can Do About the Teenage Mental Health Crisis

Douglas Newton M.D., M.P.H.

Turning concerning headlines into positive action.

If you are concerned after seeing repeated headlines sounding the alarm about a nationwide teenage mental health crisis, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help the teenagers in your life.

Reading the news, you cannot escape the fact that American teenagers are struggling. I recently wrote about a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that teenage girls are experiencing increased sadness and violence, along with American Psychological Association research that found reducing social media use improved teenage body image and mental health.

And, yet, there is even more frightening news to report about the mortality rates in children and teens. Before I walk through the sobering statistics, I want to remind readers that if you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Research out last month from the American Medical Association found that suicide and homicide rates were on the rise for individuals aged 10 to 19 before the COVID-19 pandemic, likely thanks to increased access to firearms, opioids, and a worsening mental health crisis. They found that the pandemic “may have poured fuel on the fire.” Researchers found that injury mortality, which includes homicides, suicides, and drug overdoses, rose 23 percent between 2019 and 2020, including a 39 percent increase in homicide rates and a 114 percent rise in drug overdoses. Add in concerning disparities between race and ethnicity—suicides were “more than twice as likely among American Indian/Alaska Native youths and non-Hispanic Black youths than suicides among non-Hispanic White youths”—and the data can leave anyone feeling hopeless.

Yet, there are actions as individuals and as a community and country, we can take for children and young adults in the face of these life-threatening statistics.

What you can do:

  1. Normalize taking action when faced with mental health challenges: We all struggle with our mental health at some point in time in our lives. When you are going through a tough time, share with your teenager that you’re taking action to get healthier. That could be seeing a therapist, talking to your primary care doctor, or starting a meditation or breathing exercise program. Even when you don’t feel like you connect with your teenager, they look up to you, and they will see you taking action as a normal part of life.
  2. Make mental health check-ins a regular family activity: Just like you bandaged their knees when they scraped themselves as toddlers, you can continue to assist in your teenager’s health. Try a routine of sharing your rose/bud/thorn at dinner once a week, where you each share a success (rose), a potential (bud), and a challenge (thorn). This allows everyone to share examples of how they feel that week and for you to get some insight into your teenager’s mental well-being.
  3. Unplug and get outside: A change of scenery and lack of screens can help anyone’s mental health. As I’ve shared in previous columns, reducing time on social media is proven to improve teenage mental health, and using social media too much can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. Getting outside without phones, tablets, computers, or TVs can help force a break from screens and social media for everyone. Try going for a nightly walk around your neighborhood after dinner or a weekly hike at a nearby park. Making outside, screen-free time a regular part of your family’s routine will have a positive impact on your family’s mental wellness.

What you can ask your community to do:

  1. Prioritize mental health in schools: Many schools are strapped for resources, but mental health needs to be a priority, just as much as the school nurse helping students with physical health needs. Find out what your child’s school or school district is doing to support student mental well-being at school and ask questions about how they can better address this growing need.
  2. Offer comprehensive support for youth with serious mental illness: A report from the Commonwealth Fund details some of the ways states such as Ohio and Oklahoma are providing wraparound, integrated support to youth with serious mental illness, both at home and in school, with counselors and inpatient care as needed. Take the time to write to your state lawmakers or governor to ask them to consider approaching the teenage mental health crisis with this approach to care. The report finds that comprehensive programs like these, linking young people and families with home- and community-based services, have been found to lower youth emergency department visits and improve outcomes.

I share these action items because it is easy to become overwhelmed in the face of alarming news like rising mortality rates in our youth. Yet, I believe that we can all contribute to a healthier world by normalizing seeking mental health support when we need it, talking openly with family and friends about both our health struggles and accomplishments, and pushing for change on a community level. I remain optimistic about the future of our youth, but we must all be mindful of our teenagers’ mental health needs and be sure to address them on a regular basis before they become serious concerns.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

“U.S. teen girls experiencing increased sadness and violence.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 13, 2023. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2023/p0213-yrbs.html

“Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth with Emotional Distress,” by Helen Thai, BA, McGill University; Christopher Davis, PhD, Wardah Mahboob, MA, Sabrina Perry, BA, and Alex Adams, BA, Carleton University; and Gary Goldfield, PhD, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Psychology of Popular Media, published online Feb. 23, 2023. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/02/social-media-body-image

Woolf SH, Wolf ER, Rivara FP. The New Crisis of Increasing All-Cause Mortality in US Children and Adolescents. JAMA. Published online March 13, 2023. doi:10.1001/jama.2023.3517

Conrad, Laura. “Strengthening Home- and Community-Based Services to Stabilize Young People with Behavioral Health Problems and Keep Them Out of Hospitals,” The Commonwealth Fund. March 8, 2023. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2023/strengthening-home-and-community-based-services-stabilize-young-people-out-of-hospitals

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add Comment *

Name *

Email *


Keep Reading: Related Posts

Will New Hyper-Realistic Video Filters Harm Mental Health?
Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D. Close Encounters We are not the first to point to one of Silicon Valley’s favorite tenets, move fast and break things, and say, that’s fine, as long...
Dismantling Reactive Avoidance: Facing Anxiety Head-On
Reach your full potential Luana Marques Ph.D. Sarah, a competent marketing executive, has been wrestling with anxiety for quite some time. Lately, she feels like her professional and personal growth has hit...
How Are You? Really, How Are You?
Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D. What, if anything, do you want to know when you ask this question? What does it mean when you first see someone...