There’s no doubt that teen mental health is in crisis. Since 2007, rates of teen depression and suicide have risen by 60%. Self-harm, anxiety and other mood disorders also rose sharply during the same period. And while the COVID-19 pandemic made things worse for many, teen mental health was in decline before 2020, making it hard for experts to identify a specific cause. Anyone who cares about young people should be concerned but, first, let’s dispel some common mental health myths that get in the way of seeing the crisis clearly:
Myth # 1: It’s all bad news.
While negative trends get most of the attention, it’s important to know there is also good news about teens’ well-being. Remembering that helps parents put things in perspective and focus on the actual potential problems their teen may be facing. According to Candice Odgers, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, “Young people are more educated; less likely to get pregnant, use drugs; less likely to die of accident or injury. By many markers, kids are doing fantastic and thriving. But… these really important trends in anxiety, depression and suicide that stop us in our tracks.”
Myth # 2: It’s just a phase.
Occasional sadness, worry and moodiness are normal for teens, but parents shouldn’t dismiss ongoing symptoms as something their teen will grow out of. In fact, periods of depression, anxiety or other mood disorders can disrupt teens’ development, causing them to miss out on important milestones and leading to lasting harmful behaviors and habits. For depression to be diagnosed, individuals must have symptoms for at least two weeks. If you or your teen are in doubt about whether they need help, reach out to a licensed mental health professional. Getting treatment early helps teens prioritize healthy habits and gain tools to stay stable.
Myth # 3: Kids these days have nothing to feel bad about.
It’s true that many of today’s teens have more material abundance and often fewer responsibilities than previous generations, but they also face unprecedented challenges. On average, teens now reach puberty a year or two younger than their parents did, leading to physical, neurological and social stress. They experience more pressure to perform in academics and extracurricular activities, while college has become exponentially more expensive and less of a sure path to success. They deal with the nonstop challenges of social media and digital devices and have higher rates of anxiety about gun violence, climate change and other important issues. In short, being a teenager today really can be tough.
Myth #4: It’s all because of social media.
It’s common for adults who grew up before the era of Instagram and TikTok to blame social media for the decline in teen mental health, but researchers say it’s not that simple. Rising rates of teen depression, anxiety and self-harm do correlate with the rise in social media and increased use of digital devices. But these technologies aren’t inherently evil, and they often help teens find connection and support that’s lacking in their off-line lives. Recent research suggests the problem may be more about what teens are missing out on when they overindulge in screen time, like sleep, time in nature, and in-person connection with caregivers, friends and family.
Myth #5: Poor parenting is to blame.
Lots of parents whose teens experience depression or other disorders ask, “What did I do wrong?” The truth is that many teens with mental health conditions have supportive and engaged parents. Remember that these disorders are biologically-based illnesses that can be triggered by environmental factors, but environmental factors aren’t necessarily or solely to blame. And remember that teens are developmentally wired to push back against their parents so, even if they blame you for their feelings, it may have nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personally, but DO do everything you can to get a licensed professional on board to help.