An ongoing crisis in teenage mental health

It’s only partially accurate to say that teen mental health is now in crisis. This is not a new phenomenon, although three years of pandemic-related chaos both accelerated the decline and brought widespread attention to it. 

Way back in 2019, ages ago in pandemic time, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report saying that “mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions” in regard to causing “impairment and limitation” among teens. 

Teens were already struggling with their mental health prior to the pandemic. So, while new research from the CDC shows that the mental health of teen girls has significantly deteriorated, it’s important to note that this is part of a longer, ongoing crisis.

Teen girls in particular are struggling

The CDC report contains some really stark statistics: nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, an almost 60% increase and the highest level reported in the past 10 years. 

Other findings from the report:

  • Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide—a 60% increase in the past decade
  • 1 in 5 teen girls experienced sexual violence in the past year—a 20% increase since the CDC began tracking this in 2017
  • Over 1 in 19 were forced to have sex, a 27% increase since the CDC began tracking this in 2019
  • 57% of girls report depression symptoms, compared with 29% of boys
  • LGBTQ+ teens (the study did not ask about gender identity) continue to deal with extremely high levels of violence and mental health issues
  • More than half of LGBTQ+ students recently experienced poor mental health, and 1 in 5 attempted suicide within the past year

This report is bleak, there’s no doubt. But there have been many warning signs over the previous decade that teen girls’ mental health has been on the decline. 

For example:

  • Suicide rates have climbed for Black girls 6.6% per year, on average, in the past decade
  • Two surveys show that teen mental health has declined from 2013 to 2022,  with teen girls showing a more pronounced decline
  • Last year, girls scored almost one full point higher (worse) on questions about worry, fear, depression, and unhappiness compared to boys.

Dr. Ethier of the CDC sums it up this way, “When we’re looking at experiences of violence, girls are experiencing almost every type of violence more than boys.” One thing the CDC report brings to light is how prominent sexual violence is in the lives of teen girls. 

Addressing poor mental health after incidents of violence is part of the solution, but this data should also be a call to fight the problem at it’s source—working for a world where girls and women are not routinely subjected to physical and sexual violence.

Lack of teen mental health resources 

With teen girls struggling at unprecedented levels, it’s natural to ask what resources are available to help them. How is this problem being addressed? The answer to this question is part of the crisis. 

In the U.S., 70% of counties don’t have a psychiatrist who specializes in treating adolescents. The child psychiatrists who are available are mostly concentrated in wealthier areas and many only take private payments.

The lack of access to early interventions, in the form of therapy and other mental health services, means parents don’t know where to turn to get their child help. Only about 20% of children with emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorders receive care from a specialized mental healthcare provider.

Without some form of therapeutic intervention, many of these kids get worse, with some ending up in the ER, a last resort for desperate families.

ER visits have ballooned in the past 40 years. In 1982, there were 250 emergency room visits by suicidal adolescents. By 2010, the number had increased to 3,000. By 2022, it was 8,000.

Why teen mental health is relevant for HR leaders

In the U.S., 33.6 million families have at least one child at home under the age of 18. That number represents a lot of employees balancing work with their child’s mental health struggles. When those parents walk into the workplace or start working from home at 9 am on a Monday morning, the worry, fear, and stress of having struggling children at home doesn’t disappear. 

In a recent report on children’s mental health and working parents, one parent phrased it this way: “It’s been a full-time job to advocate for my child since the pandemic.” In the same report, one-third of working parents say they’ve quit or changed their job due to their child’s mental health in the past two years.

No one has an easy solution for solving the teen mental health crisis. But some things we do know are that it takes time, support, and resources. For busy, working parents, getting access to help and having the time to get their children through a mental health crisis is an incredibly difficult task.

A heavy burden for parents at work

The pressure and time consuming nature of this dynamic—so many working parents with struggling teens—is almost an unthinkable burden. Imagine for a moment, being at work, trying to focus, worrying about your 14 year old teen who you know is self-harming and having suicidal thoughts. 

HR leaders can be on the lookout for employees who are struggling with their child’s mental health. This might look like:

  • Presenteeism: when employees are at work but not able to fully focus or be present. Parents can’t be their best selves if they are at work worrying about a teen at home who is struggling, maybe suicidal, or possibly skipping school due to anxiety or bullying.
  • Absenteeism: employees may be missing work because their child is having a mental health crisis.
  • Stressed and anxious employees: anyone who has a child at home going through a mental health crisis is likely to show signs of elevated stress or anxiety.

Working parents are starting to place a lot of importance on working for companies that provide mental health benefits for their kids. In fact, 72% of working parents surveyed say “jobs that provide their children with mental health benefits and resources are more attractive to me than jobs that do not offer such benefits.”

How HR leaders can support working parents

With so many teens struggling, there’s no doubt that most companies and organizations are employing parents who are trying to negotiate working and dealing with a child’s mental health issues. Employers are in a position to support parents in several different areas.

A recent survey about working parents and children’s mental health showed that parents are asking for:

  • Schedule flexibility 
  • Acknowledgement and understanding
  • Paid time off

HR and benefits leaders can also:

  • Point employees toward HR benefits related to families and youth
  • Promote education and conversations around mental health
  • Reevaluate their organization’s mental health benefit to ensure it’s offering the support for both employees and their teens 
  • Provide education and support around teen social media use

This last point is worth discussing. While there’s no singular culprit to pinpoint for the decline in adolescent mental health, the rapid rise of teen’s immersion into social media is likely one of several intertwining causes.

Most parents didn’t grow up with social media and have no idea how to help their kids navigate it. So many teens spent the pandemic at home, not socializing in-person with their peers, and using social media extensively, which has led to online bullying, too much screen time, worse sleep, and a lack of exercise and time outdoors. 

Of course, there’s some nuance to this conversation, and social media has both positive and negative aspects for teens. The main point is that parents need to be able to have conversations about social media with their kids and don’t know where to begin.

Fast access to family mental healthcare

For working parents of kids struggling with mental health, both the adult and the adolescent need mental health support. Spring Health offers members a comprehensive mental healthcare benefit with fast access to family mental healthcare.

Appointments in less than two days

Shortages in therapists and other mental health providers are a huge piece of the teen mental health crisis. Parents desperately need access to pediatric mental healthcare specialists.

With Spring Health, parents can make an appointment for their child, ages 6+, in two days or less. Plus, all family appointments with providers are in one place, for scheduling, rescheduling, and cancellations. 

Care Navigation

Each Spring Health member is assigned a Care Navigator, a master’s level licensed clinician, who is available to guide them through their mental health journey. 

Any parent of a child struggling with mental health can get expert guidance 24/7 from their Care Navigator, who can connect them with a pediatric therapist or help them find other resources to help their child. 

Care Navigators are also trained in crisis interventions, and can help de-escalate if a parent is calling because their teen is having a mental health crisis. They can also help support the parent in their own mental health journey. 

The entire care team works together to ensure families are getting the best support. This includes Care Navigators, providers, and coaches.

Parent coaching and support

Working parents have access to unbiased, evidence-based guidance on parenting best practices. They can partner with a credentialed coach on a range of topics, like improving parent-child communication, identity support, and behavioral concerns.

For employees to be at their best, at work and at home, they need direct access to a range of care options. In this guide, you’ll learn how coaches bolster overall wellness, helping working parents better support their children, reduce burnout, and achieve their goals.

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