The State of Teenage & Young Adult Mental Health: What Can Parents Do?
As a therapist who specializes in working with teens and young adults, I see firsthand the increase in referrals from parents. More teens and young adults are seeking out help through therapy. And this is a good thing. But there are many who continue to suffer in silence.
The teens and young adults we work with quite often are struggling with depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, and other stress related emotional challenges. Because we specialize in teen therapy and young adult counseling, our focus is solely on all things teen and young adult mental health.
We research and study findings on the mental health challenges of our teenagers and young adults. This helps us to better help those who come to us for help. And the news isn't good when it comes to teen and young adult mental health.
One study may make one question. Two studies may cause concern. But study after study finds that rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have been and continue to increase over the last decade and a half. And the trend isn't improving.
The below are a just a sampling of some of the news on teen and young adult mental health:
In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's National Hospital, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared teen mental health a "national emergency."
Emotional challenges like anxiety and depression in teenagers has steadily been increasing. A Pew Reserarch study showed that rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers has increased 59% from 2007-2017. And this finding was pre-COVID. Rates have dramatically increased since COVID.
The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey of adults and teenagers assessing stress levels in adults and stress levels in teenagers. The APA found that teenagers are reporting experiencing the same levels of stress that adults are reporting. But when school is in, teenagers are reporting higher levels of stress than adults report expediting.
From Boston University, an article titled, "Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness Are Peaking in College Students" outlines how Universities and Colleges are finding it difficult to keep up with the mental health needs of incoming young adults.
And according to the National Vital Statistics Reports, suicide rates among teenagers and young adults (children ages 10-24) are now the 2nd leading cause of death and have increased a staggering 57.4% from 2007-2018. And during and post COVID, these rates have only increased.
Like many things, it is difficult to point to just one thing as the cause. There are a multitude of contributing factors that have led to the increase of teen and young adult mental health concerns.
As teen therapists and young adult counselors, we have a behind the scenes look at what some of the factors may be that contribute to the increase in teen and young adult depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, trauma, and other challenges.
There are some common themes that are often brought up in our therapy sessions. These themes are consistent across our practice and our therapists.
The Overscheduling of our Teens
One factor that is common in teen therapy is how overscheduling our teens is contributing to a teen's depression, anxiety, and other emotional challenges.
The APA survey referenced above is particularly interesting in relation to how overscheduling our teens can contribute to teen depression and anxiety. Many of the emotional challenges that any of us face often have their roots in stress.
An increase in or persistent level of chronic stress can be the trigger for things like anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation and self-harm. It can also trigger things like eating disorders as teenagers are looking for ways to have a semblance of control over their lives.
It is not uncommon to work with teenagers who "work" longer hours during the week than most adults' work. A common schedule for teenagers today is as follows:
Wake up at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for swim practice at 6:00 a.m.
Swim practice from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. then get ready for class
Class from 7:25 a.m. and gets out at 2:40 p.m.
Band practice after school until 5:00 p.m.
Maybe time for dinner in between band practice and tutoring/voice lessons
Tutoring from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. 2 to 3 times a week
Off days of tutoring, voice lessons from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Quick dinner at 7:30 p.m.
Homework from 8:00 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.
Sleep from 12:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
While this may seem an unlikely schedule, we have worked with kids with this same schedule. This is a 17-hour workday at 5 days a week resulting in 85-hour work week.
I'm a small business owner who feels that I work a log of hours each week at 55-60 hours. Many teens I work with work as many or more hours than I do.
Maybe your teenager isn't as busy. Maybe they are. But we can see the validity in the APA survey where teens report being MORE stressed than adults when school is in. And the stress underlies the emotional challenges.
Overfocused on Academics
Don't get me wrong. As teen therapists and young adult counselors, we want our clients to achieve at their ability levels and be wildly successful in their academics. It is thrilling for us as therapists to hear a teenager come to therapy and report the "A" they earned in a class that they were previously failing due to depression, anxiety, and other challenges.
I know I grew up in a different time. Makes me feel like my dad just saying that. And here it goes.
Growing up, it used to be that pre-AP, AP, and College Prep courses were offered. Most people were in academic classes with some taking the more challenging courses. Then there were those who struggled and were in "resource" classes.
Let's face it. Teenagers would look differently at those in resource classes. We were friends with them, never mentioned anything about it, didn't make fun of them, but in the back of our minds, we knew that our friend wasn't up to par in reading, math, or other subjects and needed remedial help.
Today, the "resource" classes ARE the academic classes. There is such a high emphasis on pre-AP, AP, and College Prep courses that if a student is taking academic classes, they feel like the resource kids.
Our school system applies this pressure. Some parents apply this pressure. And there is an implied pressure from classmates who may not say anything, don't make fun of them for it, but in the back of their minds, the thought is that their friend isn't up to par in reading, math, or other subjects. The message that is given is they simply aren't as smart as other kids.
And the pressure is on.
And Yes, Smart Phones
From The Harvard Gazette, an interview was posted interviewing a professor from San Diego State University Professor, Jean Twenge. The interview focused on her research on the spike in teen mental health issues from 2011-2015. She wanted to find the contributing factors as to why there was a significant spike (a 50% increase) in major depressive episodes among teens during this time.
Twenge identified that the largest change during this time was the rise of the smartphones. Teens started reporting an increase in feeling useless and a decrease in overall life satisfaction and happiness during this time.
From the article:
“It would be extremely surprising if the shift toward teens spending the majority of their leisure time staring at a screen didn’t have effects,” says Twenge, the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”
One common theme we see largely revolves around social media. The development of the teen brain is in a state where being "liked", "accepted", and "feeling a part of" are biologically hard wired at this stage of development. It's almost akin to our need for air!
When teens are on social media, they logically know that the picture taken does not reflect real life. It's a picture that was taken at the right angle, with the right filter, after the 20th attempt in taking just the right picture.
But what their emotional brain picks up on is the likes the social media post receives. This starts to shape what their view of beauty is, what is acceptable and even encouraged in their age group, and other messages that create comparisons. And often the comparisons are not healthy.
And when they start to post social media posts that receive the "likes", each time it releases the pleasure and reward neurochemical in our brain, Dopamine. This is the chemical that is also involved in the development of an addiction.
And if you want to test out the theory as to whether your teen is addicted to their smart phone or not, try taking it away. What reaction to you get?
What Can Parents Do?
Parents are in a difficult position. In Katy, Texas and the surrounding areas, this is the system we find our kids in. If we don't have our teenagers in as many activities as other teens, they may not have a leg up on the competition.
There is a lot of pressure on parents as to what is "expected" for today's teens to prepare them for college. But as the article above points out, our young adults are entering college with higher mental health concerns and less prepared to handle college, than ever before. Is what we are doing really working? For many, yes. For many others, not so much.
And limiting smart phone use can be a fight up front. But with consistency (which is key here), they will get used to it and thank you later in life.
Know Your Teenager & Their Unique Needs
And that's part of the challenge for parents too. We see teenagers who seem to be handling the pressures. We see these teens go onto succeed in college as well. But one thing to keep in mind is not all teens are the same.
We know that some mental health concerns are genetically predisposed. And we also know that it is during the teenager years when many mental health challenges first present themselves.
It's important for parents to know their teenagers and their ability to handle the stress and rigors of today's school system and its expectations. You may have one teen who excels in with this pressure. Yet another one of your teens may struggle in this system.
If your teen is struggling with the stress and pressures of academics and the schedule, it's time to look at the academics and/or the schedule.
Many teens will resist this, and this is where parents may need to step in and parent. It may be that your teen doesn't want to step down from AP Math to academic math. If that one change can make the difference, wouldn't it be worth it?
Or maybe that extracurricular activity that they really don't enjoy and are only doing for the college application may be something that goes. And if this one change made the difference, wouldn't it be worth it?
There is not a one size fits all approach. Each parent will need to take it on a case-by-case basis. But one thing that is a common theme in the teens we work with are the above factors that contribute to their depression or anxiety.
Have a Family Day or Family Evening
I know how busy not only our teenagers and young adult's schedules are put the schedules of parents as well. I'm a parent who works 6-7 days a week. I have two teenage boys ages 17 and 15. Believe me, I get it.
And it's just like exercise. We know we need to exercise but what is the number one excuse? "I just don't have the time." But when we make exercise a priority, we are able to find the time we thought we didn't have.
Setting aside a family day or family evening and making it a priority can help. This is a time where parents spend time with their teenagers and young adults away from smartphones, laptops, or other forms of screen time. And this goes for the parents too.
Setting aside a day or evening each week to take a break and connect with your teens not only provides a needed break from the rigors of the schedule, but also:
Allows you time to talk with your teen about other things than school and academics.
Builds and strengthens a relationship with your teen.
You as parents have an opportunity to validate other characteristics your teen has other than how well they do in school.
You role model to them how important they are to you that you would take time out of your busy schedule to prioritize making time to just be with them.
You also role model how important a work/life balance is. This is a skill they can learn and take with them the rest of their lives.
Regulate Screen Time & Get Them Out With Friends
Part of the challenges that our young adults are facing when they reach college is they haven't learned to navigate socially or emotionally. The proving ground for this is when a teenager is able to prioritize spending time with friends.
Spending time with friends is where teenagers experiment with how to handle conflict. How to handle disappointment, heart break, temper excitement over an upcoming concert, test out different value systems, and start to form their identity.
It is difficult for teenagers to do this when their main source or entertainment is sitting in the corner of a room somewhere in the house on their smart devices.
It's not difficult to research on Google how important free time, down time, and fun time is for healthy teenage emotional and social development. It is the one thing that has been cut out of our school systems.
Growing up, we had 4-5 dances throughout the year. And in between dances, we had "stomps" that were mini dances put on by the school where a D.J. would play music and students could hang out and dance.
In elementary schools, kids would have three main recesses and two mini breaks. This is important for many different reasons, but the social and emotional learning aspects were front and center in these activities.
Simple But Not Easy
Simple suggestions that are supported by research and can be challenging to implement.
And at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what kind of student they are if they are struggling with their mental health. We are working towards excellent students with a well-rounded ability to manage their mental health.
Mental health issues are not something that people tend to grow out of on their own. It's not a passing teenage phase. These are things that can and often follow them into their young adult years, into college, and beyond if not addressed.
There are pressures parents face. There are hurdles to cross to implement these suggestions. But it can be worth the effort.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling Specializes in Supporting Teens, Young Adults, & Families
If your teen is struggling with depression, panic attacks, social anxiety, general anxiety or other challenges that are impacting their academics and overall life satisfaction, Katy Teen & Family Counseling is here to help.
Our therapists specialize in teen therapy, young adult counseling, and family therapy. We have helped many teens, young adults, and families restore hope, happiness, and connected family relationships. And when these are restored, teens tend to go on and transition much more effectively into young adulthood and beyond.
As a parent of one of my clients said yesterday, "Now is the time to help our kids." If we can help them overcome the emotional challenges of today, their tomorrow will look much brighter, happier, and successful in all areas of their lives.
And this isn't a plug simply for Katy Teen & Family Counseling. There are several other practices in the Katy, TX and Houston area who do great work with teens.
If you can't get into Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we have other referrals for you to help your teen or young adult be able to start the healing process.
It's more important that you take the step, find a therapist, and start no matter where you do it.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling: 70+ Years of Combined Experience in Providing Teen Therapy, Young Adult Counseling, & Family Therapy Katy, TX & Houston
Our teens face challenges, pressures, and stressors unlike previous generations. While we experienced our own unique stressors, technology & academic pressures have changed the playing field.
Now is the time to help your teen overcome these emotional challenges. Don't let them grow further into depression or anxiety, help them overcome these obstacles today.
At our Katy, TX location of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we are ready to help your teen or young adult. If you are ready to start, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling