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  • Writer's pictureNicole Serini

It’s World Teen Mental Wellness Day - What I am urging from our parents, our schools and our policy makers.

The Eyes of A Therapist

Nicole M. Serini LMHC

March 2, 2024

We Are in Crisis.

Today is World Teen Mental Wellness Day. This day is established to raise awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma.  As a therapist who works with many teens, I thought this information would be useful to share with parents and other adults who work with teens.  While I will not touch upon all of the factors contributing to the drastic decline in youth mental health in this blog, I figured I’d tackle some of the big ones. 

Take a look at the graph below provided by the National Institute for Mental Health, in an article entitled, Mental Health Statistics 2024- Quick Facts & Statistics About Mental Health, published by the EH Project, written by Jennifer Jacobsen, PhD.

This is terrifying. The numbers are higher than they've ever been. 87% of our youth reported experiencing mental health challenges in 2023. This is almost 9 out of 10 teens!  This graph doesn’t account for marginalized youth such as people of color, and our LGBTQ+ youth whose numbers are far greater. 

While these numbers are so high already, I can’t help but acknowledge, these numbers most likely do not accurately reflect the amount of teens actually struggling.  I believe the numbers are much higher.  Why? Because of under-reporting, shame of talking about a mental health issue, lack of understanding of mental health issues by both the parent and the teen. Some don't even know that they’re struggling with a mental disorder because they’ve never been educated.  I actually believe that every teen is struggling.  Similarly, every adult, or to be more blunt - every human is struggling with something.

I was a teen struggling with depression and anxiety, but did not know it because I wasn’t educated about it at home, or at school.  I didn’t understand the feelings I was having, I just knew it wasn’t comfortable, to say the least.  No one would've known I was struggling because I hid it well.  I was out-going, had a lot of friends, did well in school, and was very active with sports and activities.  Even if I did know I was struggling with anxiety or depression, I probably would not have even known where to turn, or who to talk to. I probably would have felt ashamed talking about it to anyone, as a teen growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Why are our teens in such a bad spot?   There are so many reasons. Of course, Covid did a number on our youth’s mental health, but things were going downhill well before Covid.  One of the biggest factors is the excessive phone and social media use.  This past year, the U.S. Surgeon General put out an advisory, declaring that if teens spend more than 3.5 or more hours on social media, they will double their chance of struggling with a mental health issue such as depression and anxiety, while at the same time acknowledging that teens are on social media “almost constantly.” 

Social media poses so many issues; from teens comparing their lives to the unrealistic images they’re seeing online from influencers, or just from other teens, is creating low self esteem, self-worth, and body image issues.  In addition, these years (age 10-19), are such a crucial time for brain development.  Excessive use of social media can change healthy brain development in the amygdala (responsible for emotional learning and behavior), and prefrontal cortex (responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation and moderating social behavior). 

Let’s face it, our brains are simply not equipped for the endless “scroll of doom,” where different clips, or reels promote different feelings, produce different chemicals that are released into our bodies.  We are biochemically scrolling through cortisol, the stress hormone, for 30 seconds, to another clip that causes our body to produce dopamine, which makes us feel happy, back to cortisol, 30 seconds later.  If we think about teens (or adults), spending hours upon hours doing this, it’s no surprise this would have a profound negative effect; let alone they’re spending hours not actually socializing, moving their bodies or just doing anything else. The teens I work with stay up to the wee hours of the night on social media, or on their phones in general and are not getting enough sleep.  They’re exhausted for school, unmotivated, and unable to focus, which then leads to the spiral effect of poor grades, behavioral and mood issues, disappointed parents,  lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

Adolescents are exposed to content which includes hate, as well as extreme and inappropriate behavior. There have bene shocking images that show suicide, and self-harm related content, even live depiction of self-harm acts and suicide which have even resulted in childhood deaths.

Parents often report feeling helpless to their teen’s social media/phone use, however, there are ways to limit wifi and app usage. The link below in the resources section includes the link to the U.S. Surgeon General's article on social media and mental health discusses ways of coming up with family's social media/device expectations and plans.  Of course your teen will not like this, but it is not your job to be liked.  It is your job to protect and limit the exposure and amount of time your teen is spending on social media.  Also, while teens may not admit to their parents that they know excessive social media usage is not good for them, they almost always tell me in therapy sessions that they feel terrible after scrolling through social media. They really do need help pulling themselves away from their phones. After all, they were not fortunately enough to grow up in a world without it.

Another big issue I believe affecting our teen’s mental health is parental mental health.  Adults are struggling with their mental health at a higher rate than ever.  Our parents have also been affected by excessive social media use, which has resulted in them ‘checking out’ in a lot of ways.  Oftentimes, in my practice, I hear teens report their parents seem distracted, or are always on their phones.  Parents are struggling with financial stress, work stress and other relational stress.  Parents who are struggling with depression and anxiety should seek help.  We can’t support our kids when we are drowning ourselves.  

Another reason that parents of teens are struggling is that most likely, they were raised during a time when talking about mental health issues was highly unlikely, or maybe even frowned upon.  Their parents almost certainly didn’t talk about mental health.  Grandparents of our teens were raised during a time where we didn’t know as much about mental health. If they did, they were taught to keep it to themselves, called “crazy,” or were told to pray it away.  Numbing and escaping through substance use was how people used to cope with uncomfortable feelings, and sadly, this ineffective way of coping continues today.  These dysfunctional patterns are passed from generation to generation. 

The good news is -  we can change this!  What’s the saying, “When we know better, we can do better.”  We definitely know better.

How can we change this?  By talking about mental health and utilizing resources that are available.  

Parents - I urge you to break the cycle of not talking about mental health and feelings in your family.  It’s okay to be vulnerable.  By being vulnerable and asking for help for your own mental health issues, you are modeling that it’s okay to struggle sometimes, and that it’s okay to seek help.  You are also inadvertently giving your teen permission to open up about their struggles.  You may need to push yourself to work through uncomfortable feelings, as well as cultural, religious, and generational patterns, and beliefs to break the cycle and change the legacy for your family. You can be your family's hero.

School Administration- I urge you to continue to offer more mental health resources, and education to your students.  This should begin as early as elementary school, maybe even pre-k. We can not just expect that students' parents are having these conversations at home.

Let’s do the math.  Adding more mental health resources and education = increased likelihood of academic success, self esteem, and more importantly, happier, healthier kids. 

This may not be the popular opinion, but I don't really care - It doesn’t make sense to me that we have more Football Coaches than School Counselors.  The role of a School Counselor is essential in the school system, and we need more. Any School Counselor I speak to is completely burned out.  I have been told by many of my teen clients that before coming to therapy they would have not survived without the safe haven and support of their School Counselors.  School Administrators, Board Members & Policy Makers - You can do better. What better time than now?

Social Media Outlets - to name just a few; Meta, TikTok, Twitter, -There is enough information and research that shows that there is a consistent, unfiltered flow of dangerous, damaging, outright repulsive, and disgusting, influential content exposed to our youth through apps the social media outlets that you have created and financially benefit from. We’re talking billions of dollars.  It is your responsibility to use some of those billions to help protect our youth.

In honor of today, World Teen Mental Wellness Day, check in with your teen, or a teen you know. How?  Ask, “How are you doing?” Not, “How are you doing in school?”  Ask, “How are you feeling, Do you ever feel down?  Do you ever feel really nervous? Do you know what depression is?  Do you know what anxiety is? Do you know what anxiety and/or depression is? Or how it may feel?” Opening up about your struggle and how you’re working on handling it can do so much.  Lifting the shame, and stigma by just starting the conversation.

Check out the links below for so much more information on this topic.


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