Teen Mental Health Crisis Demands Much Greater Attention

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
By just about every metric available, America is being forced to confront a terrifying reality: our adolescents and young adults are in severe crisis. If our society does not marshall the will to confront such an emergency with adequate resources, it is sure to have a tremendous impact on our nation for generations to come.

Data presented to a state commission this week showed that a staggering 4,844 Florida students had been taken from campuses for involuntary psychiatric examinations under the Baker Act during the past school year. This is just one more metric by which our society is being told, loudly, that our youth are struggling mightily to cope with the realities of modern life. 

It may take decades to fully understand the role that the hyper-isolation of COVID lockdowns and online learning played, but the fact that teen suicides shot up in 2021 after two years of steady decline, while similar spikes were seen in rates of depression and anxiety, strongly suggests what most of us would likely assume. A massive reduction of in-person socialization and peer-to-peer support during pivotal stages of development were, at the very least, contributing factors.

However, pre-COVID data suggests that the pandemic only accelerated existing trends. In 2019, the CDC reported that teen suicide rates had spiked 56 percent over less than a decade. As a result, suicide became the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. It is almost impossible to consider those numbers and not immediately look at the massive way in which smartphones and social media platforms have completely changed the way day-to-day life is experienced by this demographic during that very same period of time.

Renowned social psychologist Jonathon Haidt has been loudly sounding the alarm regarding these disturbing trends and some of the obvious correlative data. In his 2018 book with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the authors examine a number of other ways that cultural shifts in child rearing and parenting have, with the best of intentions, led to a generation of Americans raised to be far less resilient than their predecessors (the essay on which the book expanded can be read here).

For example, Americans, on average, started having fewer children and doing so later in life when they typically had more education and greater life experience. This, compounded by ever-increasing modes of media and content continuously playing to our negative news bias by over-amplifying threats to child safety (despite data showing our society becoming increasingly safer for kids) saw young Americans routinely receiving less and less free range and independence in which they could learn important life skills that create resilience. 

With more time to spend on one to two children rather than three or four, while also facing more competitive academic and economic outlooks, parents became increasingly involved in cultivating strategic childhoods geared toward adult success. This, as the authors point out, also had the effect of all but eliminating free play opportunities in which children learn to navigate the world that they will one day have to walk through on their own, again building resilience through the repeated experience of scuffing their knees—whether literally or figuratively.

Haidt has also had much to say about social media’s impact on our culture at large, although he’s been particularly interested in causal relationships between the rise of Instagram and the coinciding rise of reported anxiety and depression among adolescent females, who, while far less likely to commit suicide than their male counterparts, nevertheless have increasingly engaged in other acts of self-harm.

I don’t know of many Americans who would not agree that social media in the age of perpetual high-speed access has had a profoundly negative impact on society at large, particularly on our children and young adults. Despite this, we have failed to engage in a broader societal conversation on what this reality means for the future of our nation let alone how we might jump off the fast-moving train that is poised to deliver us to a very unattractive future. 

Instead, the vast majority of our energy when it comes to issues regarding our young people is being spent on the fringes for the sake of the neverending culture war. Our so-called leadership feigns deep concern for books that may or may not be on the dusty shelves of a middle school library or whether a teacher or textbook is too ideological (unless it’s their ideology, of course). We argue more about gender and bathrooms or prayer in school than any of the much more substantive issues that present real and immediate dangers to a much broader population of students. Alas, our deeply divided government seems incapable of treating any issue, regardless of its gravity, as more than an opportunity to attack the other side and score political points. 

Beyond government, there also seems to be little appetite for training an appropriate degree of resources toward the crisis. As in most matters within our uniquely for-profit healthcare system, the bulk of financial investments has been geared toward medicating our children, often with drugs that have not been proven to be effective at anything more than turning a buck for the powerful corporations that manufacture and market them.

Whether or not we rise to meet this challenge, there will come a day in the not-too-distant future in which this generation in crisis will inherit the institutions of American society. Should they fail to rise to the challenge, we—by then the old and infirm who will be subjected to the results—will have no one to blame but ourselves for their failures. 

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.

Reader Comments
Cat L
NOV 20, 2022  •  Yes, the normalization of disrespect has had a tremendously bad impact on kids. (As well as the rest of us.) My own niece and nephew have experienced the "political views" some parents taught their kids, up close and personal. Both have also said they have anxiety about their health and safety in school. And the pandemic has made seeking social interaction outside of school harder. Both of them had horrible experiences with stay at home learning, but going in person is very difficult as well. I'll add also that largely the younger generations have an idea that their future is less bright than generations prior, because of environmental damage they will face, the economic structure they will have, because the likelihood of their rights being further eroded is happening now and our officials are mired in pedantic BS.
Amanda Everhardus
NOV 20, 2022  •  Deep, alarming, and vital truths
NOV 20, 2022  •  Social media plays a big role in the current state of kids mental health not to mention the behavior of to many adults in this country modeling disrespect amd bullying as "strength". Adults need to do better!