Our kids are facing a mental health pandemic, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Teachers know it. Psychologists know it. Even scientists know it. It’s time you knew it, too. Read on to learn more, plus get some tips on how we can help them.
Kids Are Facing a Mental Health Pandemic, Scientists Warn
Parents, let me be blunt because this isn’t really something we can sugarcoat. Our kids are facing an unprecedented crisis. They’re stressed and depressed in ways that we’ve never seen before, at least not in our lifetimes. In other words, they’re in the midst of a full-blown mental health pandemic.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that’s to be expected since they just went through a literal pandemic. We’re ALL stressed and depressed. It’ll pass once things really get back to normal.” I wish it was that simple. It’s not.
Yes, the COVID pandemic played a major role in exacerbating the issue, but it existed for years before the first lockdown slammed into place. Long before the first class was canceled, and before the first mask went on. In fact, according to a 2022 John Hopkins study, mental health issues among kids spiked fourfold from 2016 to 2019.
Granted, the Hopkins study mostly looked at “high risk” kids (children from low-income households, kids with parents with substance abuse issues, etc.). However, other studies looking at kids, in general, echoed those results.
One of those studies found something even more shocking and disturbing than a rise in anxiety and depression. According to Harvard Health, “The rate of suicide for those ages 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the [CDC].” In fact, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among this age group.
Just how bad is it, really?
The increase in suicide rates is definitely the most upsetting, but it’s hardly the only mental health issue that’s on the rise among our kids. According to the CDC, between 2016 and 2019, 9.4% of kids (about 5.8 million) were diagnosed with anxiety disorder. About 2.7 million (4.4%) suffered from depression. Roughly 73% dealt with both conditions.
Also, during 2018-2019, 15.1% of teens ages 12-17 has a major depressive episode, 36.7% had ongoing feelings of hopelessness, and 18.8% considered attempting suicide. Roughly 10% of kids in this age group also had a substance abuse problem (drugs and/or alcohol).
The mental health pandemic doesn’t just affect teenagers, though. The CDC notes that 1 in 6 (17.4%) kids ages 2-8 also had a diagnosed mental or behavioral disorder. Check out the chart below, courtesy of the CDC, for a side-by-side comparison.
Yes, COVID played a major role in making it worse. Isolation coupled with the overall stress of constantly worrying that someone you love will get sick is enough to send anyone spiraling. However, we do our children a great disservice by blaming this mental health pandemic on another pandemic. After all, if it’s COVID’s fault, then we can console ourselves by saying everything will be fine when this crisis passes rather than actually DO something about it now.
We need to stop looking for scapegoats. Stop pretending that this is “normal” for the times that we live in. Stop making assumptions that aren’t backed up by anything other than wishful thinking. If we want to save our children, we need to stop denying and avoiding. WE MUST START ACTING.
How can we help our kids cope with this mental health crisis?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to helping our kids get through this crisis. As we know, anxiety and depression have many potential causes. Sometimes, it’s situational. For example, issues at school, the loss of a loved one, or a difficult home life. Other times, it’s caused by brain chemistry. Misfiring neurons and misbehaving hormones.
Natural remedies, a support system, and even lifestyle changes can help A LOT, but they’re not cure-alls for every mental health condition. So, along with the ideas below, I urge you to talk to your child’s doctor, or at least consult a psychologist for additional help. Also, it should go without saying: this is not medical advice.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s talk about what we- as both parents and society- can do to help our kids cope with this troubling mental health pandemic. Aside from the first one, these are in no particular order.
Educate yourself on teen mental health
Educating yourself is by far one of the most important things you can do to help your kids cope with mental health issues. Learn the signs and symptoms of true depression versus “teen angst.” Understand the difference between generalized anxiety disorder and situational stress. As they say, the more you know…
No one expects you to become an expert. Even the actual experts who go to school for nearly a decade willingly admit that they don’t know everything. Still, there are plenty of resources out there to help you learn enough to at least be able to recognize true mental health conditions AND make informed decisions about how to help your child through them. Below are a few good books that you can start with (affiliate links, but you can borrow them from the library, too, if you don’t want to buy them). The last one is a textbook, so it’s pricey, but also worth it because it’s geared toward psychology students.
Help them relieve pent-up frustration through physical activity
I read an article in Her Family that talks about how physical activity is crucial to maintaining good mental health in boys. However, girls can benefit just as much from staying active as boys can. Multiple studies (like this one and this one) show that exercising for even half an hour a day can significantly reduce or even prevent symptoms of depression.
The problem, though, is that depressed teens don’t really want to exercise So, it’s up to us parents to get creative and find clever ways to lure our teens out of bed and get them moving. Plan physical activity around the things that your teen enjoys. If they love nature, take them on a hike. If they’re history buffs, spend the day walking around a museum. Heck, if they love shopping, take them to a mall. Bribe them if you have to. Just get them up and moving. After all, exercise is one of the most natural ways to release all of those feel-good endorphins.
Create a “safe haven” for them at home
For teens with mental health disorders, the world can be incredibly overwhelming. Heck, it’s overwhelming even if you don’t have depression and anxiety issues! So, it’s incredibly important to create a “safe space” for them at home. They need a place where they can feel free to be themselves, where they’ll find love and acceptance instead of judgment and pressure.
I’m not saying that you should “coddle” them or allow them to act however they want. Nor am I saying that you have to let them “take it out” on everyone else in the household. Set rules and boundaries for sure. Just do your best to give them the type of environment that lets them breathe a sigh of relief when they walk through the front door.
Don’t just make your home feel like a haven; BE your child’s “safe space” yourself. Anxious and depressed teenagers often feel like they’re letting everyone down. They live in fear of driving you away, of disappointing you. Make them understand that you love them no matter what. Don’t just tell them, show them.
Be kind to them even when you’re frustrated. Show them love and affection (but don’t force them to show you affection in return). Be patient. Just LOVE them. It’s important for them to feel like they have one person in their corner no matter what. To know that you’ll be there for them 100% of the time, that nothing can ever, ever, ever change the way you feel about them.
Give them some space when they need it & don’t judge their coping mechanisms
When your child is suffering from severe depression, every instinct in your body tells you to stay close and to never let them out of your sight. It’s all too easy to feel like tragedy will strike if you so much as blink. Too much hovering, though, can make kids feel like they’re under a microscope, like you’re just holding your breath waiting for them to break.
Yes, it’s important to be there for them and to monitor them for signs that they are heading towards a breakdown. However, it’s just as important to give them a little room to breathe. Room to find their own methods of coping, to figure out what makes them feel better. Also, DO NOT judge your child’s coping mechanisms or try to force YOUR methods onto them.
For example, perhaps you find that a good workout makes you feel better, but your teen just needs a few hours to lay in bed listening to sad songs. Maybe you cope by escaping into a book but they prefer playing a video game or watching movies. Of course, if they’re doing nothing but lying in bed all day every day, or if they’re hurting themselves, definitely step in. However, as long as they’re not engaging in self-harming activities, let them have the space they need to figure out what works for them, even if it’s not something that works for you.
Cut them some slack
Again, I’m not saying you have to let your teen get away with anything and everything, but please consider cutting them some slack when it comes to stress triggers, like school and socializing.
Don’t punish them for bad grades, for example, especially if you can clearly see that they really are trying their hardest. Don’t force them to attend family functions that they’re obviously not feeling up to. If they want to give up an activity that no longer brings them joy, let them (but encourage them to replace it with something else that makes them happier). Listen to them when they tell you they need a break.
Get them the right kind of help
Don’t rule out professional help, but make sure it’s the right kind. It’s not enough to just drag your child to a random psychologist and expect therapy to work miracles overnight. There are so many different types of therapy ranging from one-on-one to family to group therapy. Within each type, there are also countless methods. Behavior, cognitive, humanistic. ACT, DBT, IPT, and a bunch of other acronym-based strategies.
Some work well together, some on their own. One that works for one teen may make things worse for another. Even if you find the perfect type of therapy, your teen may not mesh well with a specific therapist. Don’t feel like you have to stick with something that’s just not working. Switch therapies and therapists until you find the right fit.
Let them be kids
We have this weird notion that if we make life easier for our children they won’t learn how to survive in the “real” world. So, we basically take away their childhood. We stop letting them be kids. We force them to confront the worst parts of the world before we teach them to appreciate the best parts of it. So perhaps the single most important thing we can do to put a stop to this crisis is to just let our kids be kids. They already grow up way too fast, and they’ll learn that the world isn’t all rainbows and sunshine soon enough. For now, just let them enjoy their childhood as much as possible.
Long story short, there’s no simple way to put a stop to this mental health pandemic hitting our children. That doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless or that there’s nothing we can do to help them. We just need to be willing to put in the effort. If ever there was something worth that effort, it’s our children’s emotional well-being, don’t you agree?
Last update on 2021-05-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API