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What's the matter with today's youth?: A look at youth's mental health

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

In this blog post, I will be discussing the major trends in mental health among adolescents and the potential factors that can lead to such challenges. My research on the status of youth's mental health has been eye-opening and insightful. My goal with this post is to educate, inspire, and help in breaking down the negative stigma around mental illness.

De-stigmatizing mental illness begins with education and awareness. To start, let me provide some basic definitions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is "a state of mental well-being that enables individuals to cope with daily life stressors, live and work well, realize their innate abilities, and contribute to their community." The WHO's definition of mental health emphasizes resilience and individual empowerment.

Understanding the interaction between risk and protective factors is crucial in understanding an individual's mental health from an ecological framework. The central premise of this framework is that our communities, biological/genetic makeup, and society significantly influence us as people. Risk factors are experiences or events that increase the chances of experiencing trauma. Examples of risk factors at individual levels include childhood trauma and bullying, while societal-level risk factors include discrimination and community violence. On the other hand, protective factors refer to unique traits, characteristics, or circumstances that enhance health outcomes and reduce the harmful effects of exposure to traumatic events. An example of a protective factor is family and parental support. An example of a community-level protective factor is school-based extracurricular activities, such as sports.

A woman is wearing a black shirt with white letters. It says "Mental Health Matters". She is wearing a olive green cardigan with glasses in a dark green setting.
Mental health matters

Biological, community and structural factors influence the development of mental illness. The terms "mental health condition," "mental health disorder", and "mental illness" are often used interchangeably. However, the common denominator among these terms is significant impairment in one's overall thinking (cognition), behavior, and functioning.

Teenagers are highly susceptible to developing mental health issues and need more attention and better care. According to NAMI, 50% of lifelong mental illnesses manifest and begin by the age of 14. Furthermore, about 1/6 of U.S. youth between the ages of 6 and 17 develop a mental health condition every year, according to NAMI. Globally, about 1/7 of youth between the ages of 10 and 19 years old develop a mental health disorder, which accounts for about 13% of the global disease burden impacting this age group.

The phrase "You Got This" is in white chalk on a pavement street background with leaves surrounding it. You got this is used to motivate someone to never give up.
You Got This

In my research, I found some common themes related to youth mental health. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report (YRBS), which mentioned that over 60% of female high school students, 70% of sexual minority youth, and almost 80% of high school students with same-sex partners reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021. These are mind-blowing statistics! The report also noted that about 42% of high school students overall experienced consistent feelings of sadness and despair in the same year.

These alarming statistics highlight two crucial themes. First, there is a high prevalence of depression experienced among American youth, and it is essential to disaggregate data to identify disparities experienced by marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, which can further contribute to the onset of mental health issues. Second, the 2021 YRB Survey Report showed the astronomical rates of suicidal thoughts among the youth studied. In 2021 alone, about 30% of female students reported contemplating suicide. Furthermore, 45% of sexual minority youth (LGBQ+) and nearly 60% of high school students who had same-sex sexual partners considered suicide in 2021 alone. A third key trend mentioned in the 2021 YRB Survey report is the high prevalence rate of youth who designed a suicide plan to execute the act. Female students were twice as likely as their male counterparts to create a suicide plan, which was about 24% to 12%, respectively. Additionally, LGBQ+ high school students were three times as likely as their heterosexual (straight) peers to create a suicide plan, which was about 37% to 12%, respectively.

A woman is wearing a white sweater with the words "You Matter" in red and white letters.
You matter

The COVID-19 pandemic is often blamed for the rise in mental health challenges among teenagers. However, it is just one of several challenges teens have endured even before the start of the pandemic. Peer pressure, bullying, both in-person and virtual, and negative self-esteem are classic examples of issues that heavily impact youth. Adolescence is a unique stage of life where significant changes occur, and teenagers start to develop their identities. Lastly, in adolescence, friendships and other peer relationships play a much stronger role in teenagers' lives.

Social media, without a shadow of a doubt, has become an integral part of our daily lives, especially among adolescents. According to the U.S. Surgeon General Advisory report, almost all teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 use social media platforms, with one-third reporting that they use it almost constantly. Even younger children use social media, with 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 12 regularly using it. However, social media presents many downsides. One downside is that it can expose individuals, especially young children, to explicit content such as pornography and violence.

Another disadvantage of social media is that it can create a false sense of reality, as people tend to present an inflated or fake image of themselves and their lives online. For instance, someone may post pictures of their lavish house and car on Instagram, leading others to believe their life is perfect. This can harbor feelings of jealousy, envy, and discontent.

Additionally, social media can make people compare their lives to others, damaging one's self-esteem. What people do not share on social media is the innumerable struggles they may have faced to achieve their pinnacle of success. Social media can be harmful, as it does not show a complete, accurate picture of someone.

Speaking from personal experience, I sometimes struggle with using social media. It's easy to get caught up in the thrill of seeing people's pictures of their accomplishments, big or small. When I start comparing my life with others, it causes me to feel a little sad. Now and then, I remind myself that social media is inaccurate because it shows an inauthentic representation of ourselves. We have control over how we present ourselves to the world, good or bad.

Excessive, unregulated use of social media among adolescents can have an adverse impact in various ways. It can alter our sense of reality and cause us to lose precious time. On average, teens spend about 3.5 hours daily on social media, with about 25% spending more than 5 hours daily and about 14% of youth spending more than 7 hours on social media—such relentless, excessive use of social media has caused researchers to link it to emotional dysregulation, sleeping problems, poor academic performance, and the onset of behavioral challenges. Several studies have demonstrated that social media usage can negatively affect youth's well-being. The 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report reported that about 16% of high-school-aged youth experienced cyberbullying in 2021. About 20% of female students experienced cyberbullying and were twice as likely to encounter it as their male counterparts. LGBQ youth and those who had same-sex partners were another marginalized group affected by cyberbullying, and they were also twice as likely to endure it as heterosexual youth. Last but not least, 37% of youth who had reported same-sex partners were more likely to deal with cyberbullying than their straight counterparts.

 A white iPhone with a rainbow background with apps.
Social media is a "double-edged sword" in that it can be beneficial and toxic simultaneously.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures positively and negatively impacted school-aged youth, but the adverse effects were more pronounced. Schools, which are considered a valuable lifeline for many children all over the world, were closed. The sudden pivot to virtual learning during the pandemic caught many parents and children off guard. School closures separated them from their teachers and peers. The pandemic was a time rife with unpredictability, uncertainty, panic, and instability for all of us. According to NAMI, 18% of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 reported that the pandemic exacerbated their mental health— disturbingly, 3 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 contemplated suicide during the pandemic. Many people turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through the pandemic, including drinking and drugs. NAMI reported that 15% of young adolescents turned to drinking, and 15% of those between 12 and 17 years old turned to drugs to cope with the stressors caused by the pandemic.

3 girls share a laugh together in sunny weather.
Support from loved ones is crucial for our well-being.

As readers, it is vital to understand a few things about mental illness. Firstly, mental illness is not limited to any particular community, ethnicity, or social class. It affects everyone. Additionally, the impact of mental illness extends beyond the individual to the broader community; for instance, veterans and homeless people in the United States have a 20% and 21% prevalence of mental illness, respectively. Globally, mental illness has a significant impact on the economy, with depression and anxiety alone resulting in a loss of around $1 trillion in earnings due to reduced productivity in the workplace. Depressive disorders are the most common reason why the rates of hospitalization among younger people are alarmingly high. Therefore, it is essential to understand the role that language and words play in how we discuss mental health and mental health disorders. For example, describing unpredictable weather as "bipolar" and calling someone "crazy" for experiencing an emotional breakdown can be considered disrespectful and insensitive. Using respectful language and avoiding negative labels to describe people are crucial. This is the first step toward eliminating bias and stigma toward mental illness. By using appropriate language, we can all help get rid of stigma and treat people with kindness and dignity.


Closing words:

  • You are valuable, and you deserve to be loved.

  • Remember that your life has worth and value.

  • Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem; help and support are out there. Visit to learn more about the available mental health resources. Resources are geared toward teens and young adults and for family members and caregivers.

  • Instead of solving problems alone, rely on your strong network of family and friends to help you cope with big and small stressors.

  • For healthy processing of emotions, thoughts, and feelings, seek help from a trusted, licensed mental health professional.

  • Practice self-care! This can be in the form of exercising, writing, listening to your favorite music, etc.

  • This excellent mental health guide contains valuable tips on improving one's mental health. When used together, Therapy, medication, and positive lifestyle changes can significantly improve one's mental health.

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