We Have a Teen Mental Health Crisis, and We Need to Start Fixing It
I was compensated by Med-IQ through an educational grant from Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck to write about depression in teens and college-aged students. All opinions are my own.
If I asked you to describe today’s modern American teenager, you’d easily be able to say that they’re an eye rolling, stubborn, back-talking, self-obsessed generation who spends an unhealthy amount of time staring into tiny screens, and trying to perfect their selfie game. And while all of the above is probably true (and just like every adolescent generation before us), today’s teenagers join their predecessors in being, shall we say, difficult at times. But if and when you looked deeper into who today’s teenagers really are, if you peeled back the layers of developmentally normal immaturity and regular teen angst, you’d also find a group of young people who are depressed, anxious, and stressed out to the max. You’d see a group of children really, who are under the academic microscope more than ever before, and having to go through this most awkward and difficult time of their growth alongside the potential perils of social media.
Today’s modern teenager is experiencing mental health issues at an unprecedented rate, with suicide rates spiking and college mental health centers unable to manage the flood of unique visitors at their doorsteps every day. They lack fortitude and resilience, but at the same time are being asked to do, manage, and achieve things that just a decade earlier would have seemed implausible for the average teenager, because today “average” isn’t really average at all. The valedictorian from the class of 1990 would most likely be sitting somewhere in mid-class rank of today’s senior class. But have our teenager’s just become magically smarter over the past 20 years, or have the standards and requirements we’ve forced upon them been elevated to a height that is not only unattainable by the average teenager, but is something that is literally killing them in the process?
Ironically enough, if you polled the teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, parents, and college administrators and asked them to describe the modern teenager, they’d proudly boast their accomplishments, whilst patting themselves on the backs for raising these superhuman achievement bots. High schools would brag about college acceptances, parents would compare SAT and ACT scores with glee, while college officials continue to claim that “this year we will be admitting the ‘smartest’ class we’ve ever admitted.” And if you think I’m referring to a statement from an Ivy League school, or another Tier 1 institution, I’m not. I’m referring to Florida State University- once seen as the state of Florida’s safety school, but who received a record 50,000 applications this past year, and only accepted 10,000- and whose average GPAs and college entrance exam scores are the highest they’ve ever seen in their over 150 year history.
Again, are these kids somehow that much smarter than generations past, or have we- educators, parents, and a society that is fixated on college being the only path to success- manufactured a system that on the one hand is producing giant GPAs and 99 percentiles in testing, but is also producing a generation of miserable kids? How did we get to where average is now a high school transcript with a bloated GPA and a buffet of AP and dual enrollment classes? How did we get to where high school gradates are now typically entering college with 12-24 credit hours already under their belts? How did we get to where we expect our teenagers to excel at every single thing they step their feet into, and to at a minimum- have their feet in pretty much everything? And what is this kind of “achievement above everything else” environment doing to our families? And our teenagers?
It’s breaking us that’s what it’s doing. It’s turning parents into nurturing accomplishment factories, with moms and dads often working overtime (physically and mentally) to help teens any which way they can to continue to be able to inject their already bloated resumes with more, more, and more accolades.
But more importantly, it’s turning teenagers into performance robots with little or no room for error, and it’s all beginning to have fatal consequences. We’re seeing a dramatic and unexpected rise in teen suicide rates, which in previous years had been on a steady decline.
And in the case of a California teenager who committed suicide last year who left a note describing in detail the academic and social stresses he was under, we’re just now coming to grips with the damages and havoc this environment is beginning to wreak. And this environment? Again, it’s not full of only Ivy League seeking valedictorians working themselves overtime. It’s full of your average, middle class high schooler trying to get into their state public university.
So how do we- as an intelligent and concerned community of parents, educators, guidance counselors, college admissions officers, and therapists, begin to recognize the demands our teenagers are under, and what fundamental changes can we begin to make during high school to help foster the development of a more healthy, calm, and well-rounded young adult?
Dr. Ken Ginsburg, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the co-director of The Center for Parent and Teen Communication, sees these new teen crises of overachievement and mental health issues as the direct result of the increased pressure they are under. And unfortunately all of these academic pressures (as well as social pressures) are coming at a crucial and highly transformative time of development, when teenagers are just coming into their own. The years between 13 and 18 are typically when teens begin trying to answer some of life’s most fundamental questions, including “Who am I? “Will I fit in?” “What am I good at?” “What do I believe?” and “How will I contribute to society?” Trying to answer those as an adult is daunting enough, but trying to answer them as an immature adolescent who has yet to experience real life (and simultaneously is under a great deal of school and personal stressors), is an impossible, and quite frankly, a disproportionate task to ask.
Ginsburg believes that we are narrowing the definition of success for our young people to only include what they can do academically, and furthermore, we’re only accepting and encouraging absolute perfection. This idea of perfectionism that is being perpetuated by parents and educators alike, is of particular concern. Ginsburg states that both a narrow definition of success and increased focus on perfectionism, can undermine a teen’s ability to learn and engage in school. It can also lead to harmful effects on their health and well-being — including anxiety. When teens internalize these pressures, it can undercut the development of some of the very character strengths they need for long term success.
This increased anxiety and intense fear of failure that our teens are experiencing can lead them to feel that they’re never good enough, which in turn can bolster sadness and distress. Eventually a cycle of unattainable achievement combined with insecurity is set into motion, a cycle that immature minds are not equipped to process, nor find relief from. But how do we become aware that our teen may be suffering? What can we look for in their behavior that is a signal that they’re not handling everyday pressures well, and what kind of remedies can we offer them?
Ginsburg states that signals can be in the form of physical and behavioral changes, and can include sleeping issues, changes in peer relationships, changes ideating habits, sudden drug, alcohol, or cigarette use, and mood changes without burst and irritability. Many of those are common characteristics of a healthy teen, so it’s important for parents to be vigilant and extremely cognizant of what is “normal” for their teen, and what isn’t. Even the stereotypical “I don’t care” attitude can actually mean the reverse, that they do care, so much so that they’re just acting like they don’t for fear of failing. Ginsburg’s advice for parents of teens with high stress levels and a propensity for anxiety, is to teach them how to have and gain perspective.
By this, he means that teens need to learn to decipher between regular worries and exaggerated worries, and he believes most teens tend to lean towards the latter. He also insists that we teach our teens how to properly handle stressors. These can include teaching them how to break up larger problems into smaller ones, distinguishing between true threats (failing a final exam) and small threats (failing a pop quiz), using recreational activities as a way to release pent up emotions (exercise, talking, dancing, etc.), and finally being able to recognize that there are some things that we can’t fix, change, or have control over, but to instead concentrate our energy on things that we do have the ability to change.
Finally, he states that it’s possible to both hold teens to high levels of expectations, and to teach them to accept and expect failure. He suggests that we begin to acknowledge and celebrate their positive attitudes beyond the classroom. Unfortunately, our current college admission climate is one that does little to notice anything beyond a GPA, and that may be the great tragedy in all of this, because while all of the above are well meaning interventions and temporary solutions, they do little to alleviate many of the big picture stressors teens are facing-the insanity of modern college admissions.
Luckily, we’re now just beginning to see college admissions officers and college administrators taking a serious look at the standard quo, with many of them realizing what they’re actually bringing to campus with the absurd requirements they have now are a collection of depressed perfection seekers, not confidant, well rounded, and mentally healthy young people. In an effort to usher in freshman classes that don’t look like they just came from a high school academic war zone, some- even top tier institutions like the University of Chicago, are doing away with even requiring SAT or ACT scores. Applications are also changing, with more focus on different measures of success, and better more innovative ways to evaluate things like personal character, resilience, communication skills, and work ethic.
If and when all these moving parts are able to come together to give our teens some much needed relief, and high schools can begin to to educate them in a way that prepares them to start college fresh and eager, instead of burnt out and fearful, we will end up with a generation of better, healthier, and mentally stronger young people entering our workforce. Adolescence is a time of great discovery, and one of the only periods in one’s life where we can be carefree and take risks, all while being able to learn from failure instead of not fearing it, and before said failing doesn’t have too many consequences. Or at least it used to be that way. The sooner we can get back to that place, and parents and educators can be guides and support systems instead of adults who demand perfection, the better our society, and our young people, will be for it.
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