Although the COVID-19 emergency has ended, the pandemic’s harmful effect on the mental health of American youth is ongoing. A recent national survey of high school students by the CDC demonstrates that the mental health of adolescents in America is worsening at startling rates. Specifically, in 2021, 42% of students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and another 29% reported poor mental health. Additionally, 10% of students attempted suicide, and another 22% seriously considered it. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death (after accidents) for ages 10-14 and the third leading cause (after accidents and homicide) for ages 15-19.
It is important to understand that adolescents with poor mental health are not just “feeling blue or “a little down.” It can impact many aspects of their lives. For example, youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision making, and physical health issues. In addition, mental health problems in youth increase the risk of other health and behavioral problems such as drug use, experiencing violence or bullying, and high-risk sexual behaviors that can lead to HIV, other STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, these examples are also associated with an increased risk of teen suicide.
So, what promotes and supports the mental health of adolescents? The single most important factor is feeling connected to school, family, and community. Parents, other relatives, teachers, clergy, coaches, counselors – indeed, any adult who could have a positive impact – should do whatever they can to help youths build strong bonds and relationships with adults and friends at school, at home, and in the community. Teens need to know someone cares about them!
Finally, schools have an essential role in reducing the risk of teen suicide. The best way to accomplish this is to adopt a comprehensive program, the components of which are well established:
- Prevention: Promoting emotional well-being and connectedness among students.
- Intervention: Identifying students who may be at risk for suicide and assisting them in getting help.
- Postvention: Being prepared to respond when suicide or attempted suicide occurs.