Since the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released new data this month showing that more than half of female high school students feel sad and hopeless, and 24% of adolescent girls made a suicide plan in the past year, I’ve heard emotional reactions from educators, fellow parents and nonprofit colleagues: We are “devastated,” “paralyzed,” and “heartbroken.”
As advocates for positive youth development, many of us have seen firsthand the distressing state of youth mental health, particularly for girls and LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) kids. But the bleak data reported in the CDC’s “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report: 2011-2021” indicates the trends are pervasive, widespread, and worsening.
It is painfully clear that major change is needed across systems, institutions, and society at large to identify and address the root causes of this crisis among our teens. But even at the local level, now is the time for adults to find ways to make a difference for youth in our communities. As the mother of two girls, the leader of a local nonprofit organization focused on encouraging physical and mental wellness in girls, and a community volunteer, I am challenging myself to take action for our kids in the following ways – and I hope you’ll join me:
1. Be open about mental health challenges and normalize asking for help. A friend with a daughter in middle school recently told me over coffee that their family has been meeting with a therapist to work together on stress management skills and communications after her daughter experienced escalating anxiety during puberty. These conversations are refreshingly honest, but too rare. Our kids need to see there is no shame in seeking mental health support, and we need to embrace that professional help is not a sign of deficient parenting.
2. Support more mental health resources for youth at schools and in communities. “Trenton Kids Count 2023: A City Profile of Child Well-Being” by Advocates for Children of New Jersey reports that the student to school counselor ratio during the 2020-21 school year in Trenton was 419 to 1, and in New Jersey it was 339 to 1, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. School counselors are a frontline resource for students with mental health concerns, but their ability to help is severely limited when their time is stretched over so many kids. We can all speak up at our local school board meetings in support of increased funding for school counselor positions.
3. Start early with a positive foundation for good mental health. A 2018 survey by Katty Kay, Claire Shipman and JillEllyn Riley of “The Confidence Code for Girls” and Ypulse found that while most girls display strong self-esteem in early childhood, girls’ confidence levels drop by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. As early as elementary school, we need to help girls build a toolkit of skills for managing emotions, intentional decision-making, and resolving conflict. As parents and community members, we can advocate for high-quality social and emotional learning programs during the school day and in after school activities.
4. Mentor a young person in your community or volunteer for an organization that works with youth. Research shows that close relationships with caring adults improves mental health outcomes for adolescents. These “caring adults” can be family members, teachers, coaches, tutors, or anyone with an ongoing, positive connection. Someone recently gave me a lovely print with the statement: “Be who you once needed.” I hung it on the wall in my office as a daily reminder that it’s my responsibility to pay it forward.
5. Keep doing our homework. The serious mental health situation for adolescents, particularly girls and LGBTQ+ youth, is undeniable – but WHY these issues are exploding appears complex and not yet fully understood. The declining age of puberty, increasing use of information technology and social media, lingering effects of social isolation during the pandemic, rising hate speech and violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, and other factors are wreaking havoc on our kids. It’s important not to blame a single cause and also to stay tuned in to the latest research that can help us understand what’s going on and how we can help.
Adolescents, especially girls and LGBTQ+ youth, are suffering. It will take many caring, committed grown-ups to help them build a healthier future. We owe it to our kids not to be overwhelmed, but to take real, meaningful steps toward mental well-being for all.
Suzanne Elliot, executive director of Girls on the Run NJ East