Our Teen Girls are Seriously Struggling with Mental Health

[TW: suicide, sexual assault] A new report is raising a loud alarm about the mental health of American teenagers, especially girls.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021, issued on February 13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed disturbingly elevated numbers and trends in mental health, sexual assault, and suicidal behaviors for high school girls.

National PTA President Anna King: “Our children need us, right now.”

Another troubling finding was the high percentage of depression and suicidal behaviors among teens identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or another non-heterosexual identity.

“America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Deborah Houry, speaking at the release of the nationwide student survey results, which drew from 17,232 students in 152 schools across the country.

“Over the past decade, teens, especially girls, have experienced dramatic increases and experiences of violence and poor mental health and suicide risk,” she said. “These data are hard to hear, and should result in action. As a parent to a teenage girl, I am heartbroken.”

One of most distressing results was that 57 percent of female teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the previous 12 months. That was a significant increase since 2011, when 36 percent of girls reported those feelings. It also represented a notable spike from the 2019 YRBS survey, just before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted school life, when the figure was 46.6 percent.

In 2021, 29 percent of male teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 21 percent in 2011. By race and ethnicity, 46 percent of Hispanic youth, 41 percent of white youth, 40 percent of American Indian youth, 39 percent of Black youth, and 35 percent of Asian youth signaled persistent depression or sadness.

Overall, 42 percent of high schoolers reported those sadness and hopelessness feelings in 2021. The report considered a teen’s feelings to be persistent if they “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.”

Looking for help? DOWNLOAD the 2023 Mental Health Support and Crisis Services guide for Tompkins County

The CDC report also found a rise in sexual assault against teen girls. After holding steady at 10-11 percent for a decade, 14 percent of female high school students in 2021 reported being forced to have sexual intercourse. Girls were more than three times as likely as boys to experience forced sexual intercourse. By race and ethnicity, 9 percent of all Hispanic youth, 8 percent of all white youth, 7 percent of all Black youth, and 4 percent of all Asian youth said they were forced to have intercourse.

A total of 18 percent of all teenage girls reported experiencing some kind of sexual violence, including forced kissing and touching as well as intercourse.

“This is truly alarming,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “For every 10 teenage girls you know, at least one of them, and probably more, has been raped. This tragedy cannot continue.”

The YRBS data on teen suicide was also very concerning. According to the survey, 22 percent of teens “seriously considered attempting suicide,” 18 percent had made a suicide plan, and 10 percent had attempted suicide.

Girls were two times more likely than male teenagers to engage in suicidal behaviors. According to the report, 30 percent of female teens said they seriously considered suicide, 24 percent had made a plan, and 13 percent had attempted to take their own lives; for males, the figures were 14 percent, 12 percent, and 7 percent, respectively.

The percentage of girls who seriously considered attempting suicide significantly increased from 19 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2021; for boys, the figure remained steady, going from 13 percent to 14 percent.

Students who identified as LGBQ+, or had same-sex partners, experienced the highest rates of sadness and hopelessness. By far, they also had the highest percentages of suicidal behaviors.

According to the survey, 69 percent of LGBQ+ students, and 78 percent of teens with same-sex partners, reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

In the same pattern, LGBQ+ teens were roughly three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in suicidal behaviors. The report said that 45 percent had seriously considered suicide, 37 percent had devised a plan, and 22 percent had made an attempt.

The rates were even higher for teens with same-sex partners: 58 percent, 50 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. Seven percent of LGBQ+ teens and 14 percent of teens with same-sex partners reported having been injured in a suicide attempt, compared to 1 percent of heterosexual youth.

By race and ethnicity, 27 percent of American Indian youth, 23 percent of whites, 22 percent of Black youth, 22 percent of Hispanic youth, and 18 percent of Asian youth said they had considered suicide; 22 percent of American Indian youth, 19 percent of Hispanic youth, 17 percent of white youth, 18 percent of Black youth, and 17 percent of Asian youth had made a plan; and 16 percent of American Indian youth, 11 percent of Hispanic youth, 14 percent of Black youth, 9 percent of white youth, and 6 percent of Asian youth had attempted suicide. Overall, 3 percent of high school students reported being injured in a suicide attempt.

According to CDC, poor mental health can result in serious negative outcomes for the health and development of adolescents, which can last into adulthood. Young people who feel hopeless about their future are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy, it says. Suicide risk not only places the life of the adolescent at risk, but is also a marker for experience with trauma and other mental health issues, CDC notes.

Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, reacted to the YRBS report during a CDC media briefing.

“This YRBS data is extremely heartbreaking to see,” she said. “This is especially heartbreaking to see the data for female students and LGBQ+ students. We’ve been saying our nation is facing a huge mental health crisis, and this data makes it even more devastating.”

King called on schools, families, and community organizations to address the youth mental health crisis together as a matter of urgency.

“It’s critical that everyone come together, school staff and community organizations, collaborate and work together to help our families and our children with comprehensive support,” she said. “Our children need us, right now.”

Schools should support a school climate where all students feel welcome, supported, and set up for success, she said. “We suggest that our schools start by educating their staff and their families on what mental health is, what supports are available, and how they can access their services. This includes teaching about social and emotional learning, connecting students with counseling, and providing families with tools they need to have mental health and great conversations at home.”

King spoke about losing her own 15-year-old niece, Lana, to suicide five years ago, and urged parents to develop a strong understanding of their children’s wellbeing.

“She was a happy child,” King recalled. “She was very engaging. She ran track and basketball. She was a dancer, and she was a cheerleader. We never knew what signs were, or what to look for. I wish my family had these resources, and knew what to look for earlier.”

“I’m urging our families to come together, look for signs, look for ways that you can have these conversations with your children. It’s critical to talk with our children about what they’re feeling and their concerns, things happen at school with their friends, and how current events are always impacting them, and to share their own feelings and challenges are extremely important, as well as your own.”

WATCH: CDC media briefing on Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021

Schools are on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis, and must be equipped with proven tools to help students thrive, CDC’s Ethier agreed.

She called for teachers to be trained to help manage the mental health problems they see in their classrooms, mentors to help foster positive connections, and schools to ensure that they are safe places for vulnerable youth.

 She added that schools should connect youth to needed services, and provide quality health education that teaches skills like understanding sexual consent, managing emotions, and communication.

Ethier said such critical lifelines for students and found in CDC’s What Works in Schools program. “Research has shown that schools that implement the program see significant benefits for their students,” she said.

Ethier said that the 2011-2022 YRBS report contains the first national youth risk behavior data since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but noted that “data have shown that many measures were moving in the wrong direction before the pandemic.”

Note about transgender data: The CDC report said that because the survey did did not include a question on gender identity, the report did not highlight data specifically on students who identify as transgender. That’s why the report references “LGBQ+” omitting the letter T that is commonly used in the acronym LGBTQ+, the report explained. “However, strategies to improve adolescent health should be inclusive of all students who identify as LGBTQ+, so the full acronym is used when highlighting actions,” the report said. It added that future YRBS surveys will include a question on gender identity.

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741

Tompkins Parents: Get Smarter about Kids and Social Media

Our kids are spending more and more time on social media, according to a recent survey. Are you a parent who feels confused and even despairing about raising children in the Digital Age?

The survey by Common Sense Media found that teens are spending an average of one hour 27 minutes a day on social media apps (current top favorites are TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram). That’s a 25 percent jump between 2019 and 2021.

A worrying trend is the growing use of social media by kids aged 8 to 12. Eighteen percent of tweens are on social media every day, and overall tween use almost doubled to 18 minutes a day on average during the height of the pandemic.

Another survey in 2020 by the Lurie Blog found that 58 percent of parents believe social media has a net negative effect on their children. The concerns fall into two categories: what it takes away (sleep, schoolwork) and exposure (cyberbullying, sexual content).

To learn more about the pitfalls—and benefits—of social media, and how to handle the sometimes sticky issues with your children, sign up for a webinar designed for Tompkins County families on Wednesday October 19 between 12 Noon and 1:30 p.m.

Social media expert Chris Vollum  will present “Digital Intelligence and Well-Being for Parents,” a free webinar via Zoom sponsored by Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca and The Sophie Fund.

Click Here to Register (It’s free!)

Vollum’s webinar seeks to give parents clarity, confidence, joy and new skills on how to support and discuss both the benefits and risks of social apps and platforms with their children.

“Social media and social apps dominate student life,” Vollum says. “In a post-pandemic world, they are relied upon even more to build relationships, establish connections and stay in the loop.”

He encourages parents to become more proficient with the social apps and platforms that their kids are using to define their lives. His presentation equips parents and caregivers with the skills to launch important conversations with their kids on a level that builds trust, collaboration, transparency—and establishes mutual expectations.

The webinar presents a visual step-by-step walkthrough of the features, functionality, and privacy settings of Snapchat, TikTok, Discord, and Instagram.

“With a working understanding of the world of social media and what drives its global popularity, fear and uncertainty that participants might have is extinguished and replaced with confidence, knowledge and inspiration,” Vollum says.

The webinar is part of the United in Kindness series in Tompkins County during the month of October.

How Schools Can Address Bullying

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer for the Ithaca City School District, urges school personnel to take measures when they see serious acts of discrimination, harassment, or bullying that may be violations of New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act.

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer, Ithaca City School District

Verba spoke at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27 sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

“When we see something, we have to do something, when it’s around the Dignity Act work,” Verba explained. “Kids do have an opportunity to work it out. When they run out of skills, when it really looks like it’s creating this threshold of harm, that’s when we need to say something. Everyone has a right to not just be welcomed, but to belong. We want to be in a community with one another.”

In a presentation titled “Creating Safe and Caring Schools via the Dignity Act,” Verba reviewed the purpose, definition, and operation of DASA, as the law is known.

The goal of DASA, she said, “is to create a safe and supportive school climate where students can learn and focus, rather than fear being discriminated against, harassed, or bullied.” She noted that the act took effect in 2012, and was amended in 2013 to include cyberbullying and again in 2018 to include gender identity and expression.

She said DASA protects against discrimination based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, sex, gender, and “other.”

Harassment is defined as the “creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by verbal and non-verbal threats, intimidation, or abuse,” she said. More specifically, she added, the behavior qualifies as harassment if it interferes with a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits, or mental, emotional, and/or physical well being; causes fear for personal safety or may cause physical or emotional injury; or risks disruption of the school environment.

Bullying, Verba said, is defined as using an imbalance of power, involving the use of physical strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing information, to hurt or control another person; occurring or having the potential to occur more than once; with the intent to cause harm. Cyberbullying is simply bullying that occurs through any form of electronic communication, she said.

WATCH: “Dignity for All Students Act (DASA)”

Verba explained that under DASA school staff have a responsibility to provide instruction to students on civility, citizenship, and character to address the prohibition against harassment, discrimination, and bullying and cyberbullying. School staff must orally report incidents within one school day, and follow up with a written report within two school days, she added.

As for school administrators, they must provide students, staff, and families with information about DASA and how to contact the school’s DASA coordinator, Verba explained. She said administrators lead or supervise investigations into all reports of DASA violations.

A case rises to the level of a “material incident” that is reported to the state, Verba explained, if  it is a single or series of related incidents involving harassment, discrimination, or bullying that created a hostile environment to interfere with education, well being, or physical safety.

Verba acknowledged that school personnel sometimes grapple with the line between bullying by an aggressor against a victim, and conflict where all parties are affected. And, she added, there is a line between bullying and behavior that, though unfortunate and needs to be addressed, is rude or mean.

She said that when school personnel interpret incidents of rudeness or meanness as bullying, they may fail to give students the space to work out the issues on their own. “Many of us have done some self-reflection on that,” she said. “I probably called things or misdiagnosed things because of my urgency to make something right.”

Another struggle Verba described is when parents and school personnel disagree about the seriousness of an incident affecting their child. “Parents will respond often in a way of, ‘You don’t care about my child, you’re not going to do anything,’” Verba said. “It does not build the bridge of relationship and parent as partner.”

She stressed that it is important for schools to respect the lived experience of the child and parents. “I really need these parents as my partners,” she said. “If they’re telling me that this met the threshold of something that created a hostile environment for their young person, am I really going to tell them that they’re wrong?”

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.

DOWNLOAD Dignity for All Students Act in Tompkins County

Kids Getting Bullied: What Adults Can Do

Bullying can have serious immediate and lasting harmful impacts on children, yet 64 percent of those who are bullied do not report the experience to an adult, according to Bailey Huston, coordinator of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Huston spoke at “Kindness, Acceptance, and Inclusion in the Age of Covid-19,” a webinar hosted by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force on October 27 in a program marking National Bullying Prevention Month.

DOWNLOAD: Resources from PACER’S National Bullying Prevention Center

Huston reviewed the four main types of youth bullying: verbal bullying, using words to tease or harass; emotional bullying, such as manipulation, gossip, or exclusion; physical bullying, such as kicking, hitting, damaging or stealing property, or unwanted touching; and cyberbullying, using technology such as social media to hurt or harm.

“We all know that conflict is a normal part of a kids life, and it can be hard to figure out if it is bullying or just conflict,” Huston said. Yet, she added, it is crucial to understand the distinction. She explained that conflict is between individuals of equal circumstance who are not seeking to cause harm, whereas bullying involves a power imbalance where a perpetrator is not concerned about causing harm and may actually be motivated by a desire to control.

“Some common views about bullying are that ‘It’s part of growing up,’ ‘It makes you tough,’ ‘Kids will be kids,’ ‘It’s only only teasing,’” said Huston. “But bullying should not be part of growing up.” In fact, she argued, bullying can negatively impact a child’s education, health, and safety.

Students who are bullied may avoid going to school, which can cause a decline in academic performance and even dropping out, Huston said. Bullying can lead to stomach aches, headaches, and sleep problems, and emotional problems like depression and anxiety, she said. Finally, bullying behavior can result in physical harm to bullies and their targets, she said.

It is important to emphasize, Huston said, that bullying is a behavior, and behavior can be changed. The focus on addressing bullying should be on the behavior, and not the person, she said.

“We avoid using words like the ‘bully’ or the ‘victim,’” she explained. “Behavior like bullying can be changed. It is not a permanent part of who they are. This behavior does not have to define them. When you pull back those layers, we can see there are number of ways we can redirect the behavior in positive ways.

Huston advised parents to talk to children about bullying, and support and empower them if they are bullied. She encouraged parents to start a conversation with their children at a young age, and to provide constructive backup if and when they experience bullying. She said it is important for children to know that being bullied is not their fault and not their responsibility alone to stop the bullying. Huston said students should be encouraged to report bullying to a teacher or trusted adult, and advised against encouraging them either to stand up to the person bullying them or to just ignore the bullying.

Huston noted that PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center provides a wealth of educational as well as support materials on its website.

To address a serious bullying problem, Huston suggested developing actions plans. She said a “Student Action Plan” can reflect on the issue and develop steps to change the situation. A “Parent Action Plan” should keep a record of incidents which should include any written information, the date of the event or events and person or persons involved, and their child’s own account of what happened, she said.

Additionally, Huston said, parents should decide on the best approach for taking action—for example, whether to approach school staff, health professionals, law enforcement, or other community members about the problem. She said parents should learn their legal rights in the situation, and know the procedures for reporting a problem. Many schools have specific procedures for reporting incidents, but Huston noted that Pacer’s website provides a template letter that parents can use as well. (Click here to download).

For more resources, click here for The Sophie Fund’s bullying prevention page.

For School Staff, Suicide Prevention Resources

Teens may have a tough time coping emotionally with the stress, fear, and uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP says that feeling depressed, hopeless, anxious or angry are signs that they may need more support.


For school administrators and teachers preparing to address student mental health challenges in the next school year, resources are available on the website of the Suicide Prevention Center  of New York State (SPCNY).

“Staff are uniquely positioned to identify warning signs and subtle behavior changes, and schools should plan for what to do if suicide risk is identified,” says SPCNY. The center urges school districts develop written procedures for staff to follow when warning signs of suicide are observed or suspected.

SPCNY cites a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing that 31.4 percent of New York State high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, 17.2 percent seriously considered attempting suicide, and 7.4 percent reported a suicide attempt in the previous 12 months. “Because youth spend a large proportion of their time in school, schools play a central role in New York State’s effort to prevent suicide,” SPCNY says.

SPCNY’s website lists several suicide prevention training programs designed specifically for school staff. They include trainings on recognizing warning signs, helping at-risk students, and responding to a suicide or other traumatic death in the school community.

The website also lists resources for educators:

Crisis Text Line Marketing Toolkit

Kognito’s At Risk online modules can be accessed for free by New York City educators

Warning signs video

Warm handoff video

Act on Facts: Making Educators Partners in Youth Suicide Prevention – Three-minute trailer and full training modules

Sources of Strength is a suicide-prevention program that utilizes peer leaders to change unhealthy norms and culture and, ultimately, prevent bullying, substance use, and suicide.

Good Behavior Game is an evidence-based classroom program that improves self-regulation and co-regulation among 1st and 2nd graders. Longitudinal studies have found decreases in suicide, mental health problems, and substance use, among other outcomes.

JED Foundation provides resources and information for High School personnel

School Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide

SPCNY also produced “A Guide for Suicide Prevention in New York Schools.” (Download PDF) The guide provides an overview of suicide risk factors, warning signs, and protective factors. It also outlines a wealth of information on prevention programs, targeting higher risk groups for support, and providing individualized intervention.

nys youth suicide guide

According to SPCNY, deaths by suicide in New York State have increased by 32 percent in the past decade, in stark contrast to gradual reductions in the death rate for other diseases such as cancer, heart disease or stroke. The rate of suicide in all age groups has continued to steadily rise in the last decade and the rate of suicide death among children 10 to 14 has doubled in that same time frame.

“Addressing the problem of youth suicide requires collaborative action across a variety of community agencies, but schools have logically assumed more of a leadership role in identifying, referring, and aiding youth with mental health needs,” SPCNY says. “Schools also play a critical role in promoting psychosocial competencies that reduce vulnerability to suicide.”

SPCNY notes that given that the developmental trajectory for suicide risk can begin early in life, schools are uniquely positioned for building resilience among their students and developing a caring community within a positive school climate and culture necessary for the prevention of suicide.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]