Teen girls in America are in crisis: Nearly 3 in 5 surveyed felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, according to a bleak report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the highest rate seen during the past decade and double that of teen boys.
One in 3 teen girls reported seriously considering attempting suicide, up 60 percent from a decade ago. Across the board, teens reported “increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” according to the CDC. But girls suffered more than boys. The report analyzed data from the biannual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey, which polled 17,000 high school students nationwide in the fall of 2021.
In other concerning takeaways from the CDC analysis, more than 1 in 5 LGBQ+ teens attempted suicide and more than half of the LGBQ+ students had recently experienced poor mental health (the survey did not ask about trans identity); Black and Latinx students were more likely than any other racial and ethnic groups to not go to school because of safety concerns; meanwhile, white students were more likely than other racial or ethnic group to experience sexual violence.
These statistics are probably not a surprise to anyone who has been in close contact with a high school student lately — as a parent, teacher, or a doctor. Still, taken together, the data present an alarming picture that should prompt tough and overdue policy conversations at the local, state, and national levels.
Without a doubt, young “people are telling us that they are in crisis,” Dr. Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s adolescent and school health program, told The New York Times. Research has found that signs of depression present differently in teenage boys and girls, with the former generally more likely to be irritable or angry. According to Ethier, teen girls are experiencing almost every type of violence more than boys and teenage boys are often the perpetrators.
Massachusetts’ data follow the national trend of rising teen anxiety, even if we look at it from a different angle: the juvenile justice system.
Data released last month by the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board, a group established by the landmark criminal justice reform law of 2018, showed there was a dramatic increase in the use of the state’s juvenile justice system between fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022, which was anticipated as teens emerged from the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. What drove most of the increase? Arrests and summons for teens alleged to have committed person, property, and weapons offenses. The good news is that the overall use of the system is declining at deeper touchpoints, such in the post-arraignment phase, which means teens are getting diverted or have their cases dismissed, particularly when they are charged with lower-level offenses.
Which brings me back to the local aspect of the teen crisis. The CDC report singles out school-based efforts as the key to tackle the teen crisis because that’s the location where youths spend much of their daily lives. That’s not a revelation or a meaningful insight — some of the most visible incidents of youth violence in Boston have been school-related or school-based: fights in the hallways and troubling cases of aggression toward teachers.
“[S]afe and trusted adults — like mentors, trained teachers, and staff — can help foster school connectedness, so that teens know that the people around them care about them,” reads the CDC report. Similarly, the state data on the juvenile justice system offer school-based recommendations. It “seems likely that … school-based services may have helped keep more of these youth out of the delinquency system,” reads the state analysis. As for other measures, some experts have called for schools to be social media-free zones and banning or limiting the use of phones in schools given the correlation between social media use and mental health issues among youth.
All of that is a no-brainer. But I’m not confident, despite a budget of more than $1 billion, that all schools in Boston are offering the social work and mental health support truly needed to help all students. Last week, about 50 high school students from the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in Dorchester — the site of a brutal attack against the school’s principal in 2021 — walked out of class in protest of what they called poor usage of funding, unfair student suspensions, and lack of communication between students and teachers.
Parents want to feel that their kids are safe, protected, and learning in schools, but teachers and staff shouldn’t be the ones breaking up fistfights in the hallways. That’s not their job. Without a doubt, our teens are in crisis and need mental health supports in and outside of schools.