I love this time of the year. Spring brings sunny weather that warms our skin and rejuvenates our souls. I’m back to relaxing in Sofia parks and enjoying the view of downtown from my balcony. There is a pleasant buzz developing at school. Students and teachers alike know that a long vacation is around the corner, and there are signs that we are getting closer: we just enjoyed spring break, 12th-graders have completed classes and their graduation is a calendar page away. Prom tickets are being sold and prom dresses are being bought. There is a lot going on, but many of us have a bit more bounce in our step.
I was looking to match this sunny vibe with my article this week (counselors rotate in to discuss an aspect of wellness in each Weekly Howl). As I was mulling over ideas, however, an interesting article on teen loneliness and depression caught my attention. (“‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens” in The New York Times. It can also be read here as a google doc.)
It struck a chord with a friend in a different part of the world, too, who sent me the link on the same day that I had come across the article, and she asked if I had read it. Her own daughter in Israel – a happy, charismatic girl – had over the past year slid into depression, and as a parent, the statistics and personal stories in the article spoke to her. Perhaps, I thought, some parents in our own community would be interested, as well. While the article focuses on teens in the US, studies reveal that loneliness among teens is increasing worldwide.
First, here is what seems to be good news: looking at statistics in the United States, rates of teen pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, drinking, smoking, and drunken driving are declining. We are inclined to think, “Great!”
Investigate the reasons for the dip in these outcomes, however, and the detailed picture isn’t as rosy. Why are there less pregnancies and STDs? A major factor is due to the non-intimate nature of socializing. Teens don’t get together as much as they used to; they “hang out” on their phones instead of getting together in the same physical space. Drinking and smoking tend to develop during social interaction, and certainly one needs to interact in the flesh to get pregnant or contract an STD.
What we do see an increase in among teens are anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even suicide. Health professionals don’t have a full explanation on why this era’s teens suffer from mental health issues more than their parents’ generation, but here are a few of the factors they cite:
Spending more time on phones and social media makes teens more superficially connected and less meaningfully connected. Loneliness is the result.
Teens are spending more time indoors getting less outdoor time, less exercise, and less sleep – all of which are important for brain & body development and healthy socialization. The two points above are ones that we may intuit. A third factor under consideration is more surprising:
Puberty is developing at a younger age. (In girls, 12 years old now vs. 14 years old in 1990, and at 16 in an earlier era.) During puberty, kids are more aware of and sensitive to an incoming flood of social messages, but their brains, which aren’t developing as rapidly as their bodies, can’t process this deluge of information effectively.
A psychologist in the article summed up the effect: “The combined result for some adolescents is a kind of cognitive implosion: anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, self-harm and even suicide.”
How can you tell if your child is anxious or depressed? Storm and stress are often hallmarks of the teen years, so what you perceive as a serious warning sign might not be. Look for profound and persistent changes in sleep patterns, appetite, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, and general sadness. The Mayo Clinic has a more detailed list of things to look for.
Is it risky to talk to your child about how they are feeling? It’s actually helpful. But you want to approach such discussions in the right way. Exhibit compassion and a willingness to listen without judgment. Be direct in your questions; no need to dance around sensitive topics if you approach them with care. While teens don’t often look to open up to parents about their inner lives, a child who is suffering may welcome such questions from a caring parent.
If you feel that your child could use professional help, a primary care physician is a good place to start. A capable doctor can determine if there is a physical issue, and they can often recommend psychiatrists and psychologists. The counselors at AAS can also recommend local and online mental health professionals. Please refer to this excellent article or document for recommendations on how to support a child struggling with his or her mental health.
I hope that most readers of this Weekly Howl article will find it merely interesting – or even uninteresting – and that their own children are enjoying the spring and looking forward to prom, vacations, and other sources of happiness. If your child is struggling with mental health, however, I hope there is something helpful in the words and links on this page. You are welcome to reach out to our support crew at AAS: