DISCLAIMER: The following story will be exploring themes related to suicide and mental health struggles for teens. We’re sharing this disclaimer for two reasons.
We know that subject matter like this can be emotionally triggering for some, so we want to be sensitive to those individuals in our audience who may prefer to skip out on this read.
We would like to take a moment to point out that while yes, parenting/leading/guiding teenagers can be a BIG, daunting job, it’s far from all bad. This season of life gets a BAD rap. What we usually hyper focus in on are the struggles and things to dread, but we fail to showcase the sheer beauty it can hold. While some will struggle during this time, for many it’s a season of growth, development and discovery, so guardians, please don’t shy away from fully embracing every aspect of adolescence with the children in your life – they need you now more than ever.
Adolescence is a time characterized by many changes, both biologically and experientially, which enable them to transition into adulthood.
While many teens progress through this period well, others may have more difficulty and experience mental health issues as a result of situational adversities, academic pressures and relational stressors.
According to a recent release by the CDC, both teenage boys and girls today
are reporting increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, so while there are still those who weather this season of life just fine, the number facing difficulties seems to be steadily growing.
The report, which features data gathered in 2021, revealed that 57% of U.S. teen girls and 28% of teen boys felt persistently sad or hopeless at the time of the assessment. When looking at the data across the last decade, figures for both boys and girls
grew, with girls experiencing the sharpest increase of 60% from 2011 figures.
Statistics on teens and mental health like that can be a scary, rude awakening for parents, guardians and support people charged with caring for individuals in this season of life.
In my role as a licensed psychologist and professor with the UTMB Health Department
of Pediatrics and mental health director with the Teen Health Center of Galveston, I help teens tap into their strengths, guide them through their developmental experiences,
teach them coping skills and connect them to their support people whether that’s their parents, teachers or someone else in their lives. And it’s a job I take seriously.
Historically, some factors contributing to individuals who struggle mentally throughout development and adolescence typically have one or more of the following:
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Neglect or overall family dysfunction
- Separation from parents as a result of divorce or other means
These situational issues have been around much longer than recent years, but things like the COVID-19 pandemic, mass violence and loss as a result of both are partially to blame for the recent jump in data.
Beyond assessing feelings of hopelessness, the survey also gathered information on suicide, revealing that 30 percent of girls and 14% of boys seriously considered it during the past year.
Individuals citing these feelings typically exhibit warning signs such as:
- Overcoming the fear of death by researching it and writing about it
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and being trapped
- Worrying that they are a burden to those around them
- Increase use of harmful substances
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
HOW PARENTS/GUARDIANS CAN HELP
If a teen in your life is exhibiting some or all of these signs or more, below are some tips to help intervene, but more than anything it’s important to first remain nonjudgmental. The last thing you want is for the individual to begin feeling like
it’s a character flaw and that something is wrong with them.
- Reiterate that you are there for them and ask them directly if they’re wanting to die – don’t tiptoe around it.
- Find ways to connect—it can be through a walk, a shared activity – anything that fosters a bond and helps bring them out of their trapped cycle.
- Remove access to means of harm
- Remind your teen of health ways they can cope with negative emotions
- Taking a different perspective
- Stating a coping mantra
- Reaching out to others for support
- Doing a relaxation practice
- Problem solving
- Make it about the mental illness and not the individual
- Practice reflective listening
- Discuss reasons for living
- Connect with community resources and mental health professionals
THE WHOLE PICTURE AND A PATH FORWARD
This list is far from a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution. The road toward a mentally healthier future is a windy one that will rely heavily on collaboration between educators, parents, mental health providers, health care providers, governmental
agencies, philanthropic foundations and the youth themselves. The path to healing in this space is paved by the people around us.
In the meantime, do what you can to model healthy behaviors for the children in your life and keep them from experiences that could cause harm.
And remember, the majority of adolescence is still a magical, beautiful time filled with defining experiences that give our children the chance to exercise their expanding minds. Don’t worry yourself sick about how you will handle these situations,
instead just jump in feet first and lead with your heart, that’s all our kids want, anyway.
RESOURCES FOR TEENS AND MENTAL HEALTH
- Local pediatricians
- School counselors
- Gulf coast crisis hotline – CALL: 866-729-3848
- Suicide and Crisis hotline – CALL OR TEXT: 988
Dr. Beth Auslander an associate professor in the department of Pediatrics and specializes in Teen Health.