American Adolescents Face a Mental Health Crisis

Photo by Katarzyna Grabowska on Unsplash

High school students in America are stressed out. In the United States, a whopping 93 percent of high school students reported feeling stressed during the past month, according to a new study from the American Psychological Association (APA). And an even larger 85 percent of middle school students felt stressed over the past month, the study found.

These numbers sound dire, especially for a generation of kids who grow up in a social media-driven world, where idle time and the fear of missing out can make a person anxious. Psychologist Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at George Mason University, said the study likely doesn’t reflect all the stress and anxiety adolescents experience. “As a society we often see the youth in a particular country and assume that youth there must be experiencing less stress than youth in the U.S., but it may be the reverse,” Maibach told HuffPost. “I would venture to say that high school students in the U.S. tend to be more anxious because we have so much more stress and anxiety associated with school and college admissions and college loans and all sorts of things that make teens anxious.”

The study, which surveyed 9,000 students between the ages of 12 and 18, included participants from both the United States and Australia. Researchers measured the respondents’ perception of their personal social and family lives, academic lives, school life and stress levels, in addition to whether they felt obligated to succeed.

Participants completed self-reported measures of their stress levels and reported their likelihood to attempt suicide. In addition, the study found that students in more wealthy, democratic countries have lower rates of stress than students in less democratic nations, due in part to the greater social support they receive. WILLIAM WEST via Getty Images This 2016 selfie depicts students at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs taking a break from studying to get some sun. For teens in the U.S., this higher rate of stress seems to affect their mental health.

“The social support that exists in the U.S. at the secondary school level is extraordinarily good, it is very strong,” said Maibach. “Whereas there’s a lot less social support in countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, where they have very high rates of suicide and depression.” “Many factors that make youth in the U.S. at a particular age feel stressed are also stress factors in youth in other places in the world,” he added.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Emotional wellness and suicide prevention Maibach suggested that while high school is usually when adolescents start to feel anxious, they’re not the only ones who experience anxiety ― a condition often referred to as “post-traumatic stress disorder.” “This might be what we refer to as emotional wellness, or more distress with life events, and that affects people for a variety of different reasons,” said Maibach.

“It can be stress over social relationships, it can be anxiety over school. Some of it might be emotional distress from a difficult experience, like the death of a loved one, and that could manifest as anxiety.” And because adolescents tend to experience multiple trauma and loss at the same time, this creates the perfect storm for increased anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, said Maibach.

“This is a potentially more acute version of what might be going on when people have the full range of stressors in their lives,” he said. Selfie For Stress? The study also explored suicide awareness, considering the increasing number of young people taking their own lives. Nearly 700,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 reported attempting suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, 54,773 young people in this age group died by suicide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. While U.S. adolescents who identify as LGBTQ report being more socially isolated, teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer report being more socially connected to their peers and family members, and they have lower rates of suicide attempts, suicidal ideation and attempted suicide, according to a 2013 University of California, Los Angeles, study.

These findings can’t be explained by improved access to health care for young people, according to Maibach. “There has been some research suggesting that diagnoses of mental health conditions have improved a little bit among adolescents, but there has not been a huge change in suicide,” he said. Maibach said his study didn’t take into account factors that might drive differences in rates of anxiety and depression in young people, such as cultural influences and availability of social media.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

“Certainly, a person in the U.S. with mental illness is at greater risk of suicide than a person in many other places in the world,” he said. He also said the findings don’t diminish the stress that many adolescents are experiencing. “These data are concerning in light of these current stresses, but they don’t in any way suggest that there’s no possible way to mitigate these risks,” Maibach said. “There are a lot of ways that adolescents can make themselves safer.” Some people have noted on social media that the selfies posted by many of the participants were reportedly selfies taken within the first year of college, suggesting that people might be simply more comfortable about expressing their emotions while in college.

Some people have also suggested that adolescents in high school are especially vulnerable to social media pressures and therefore might have been more likely to post a selfie. This idea is also problematic because it’s based on the idea that people can only be good if they show up on social media all the time, according to Maibach. “One study that did look at individuals who reported a lot of social media use but who also reported feeling well (in terms of mental health), those individuals were reporting more social connections, as well as less anxiety and depression,” he said.

“However, on the flip side, they were reporting more depression and less anxiety and less communication with friends.” Despite this, he believes that the benefits of face-to-face social interaction can outweigh the risks for young people, and the report calls for schools to do more to foster such connections. “Adolescents still need social connections in order to thrive,” he said. “We should be encouraging those connections rather than reducing them.”

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Nature is beautiful and I care about the world around me. I enjoy too much coffee while my dog Coco enjoys too much rainy weather. The world has its secrets.

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Oe Kaori

Oe Kaori

Nature is beautiful and I care about the world around me. I enjoy too much coffee while my dog Coco enjoys too much rainy weather. The world has its secrets.

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