[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.”
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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