Teen Girls Are Experiencing Sky-High Rates of Sadness and Hopelessness. Here’s What Parents Can Do to Help

Students and community members place flowers and candles on the steps of Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles on Sept. 15, 2022, after a fellow teenage girl student died of an overdose. Nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—almost a 60 percent increase from 2011. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A study from the CDC this month revealed some alarming statistics about the rapidly declining mental health of teenage girls. Nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—almost a 60 percent increase from 2011. Teen girls are also experiencing record high levels of rape, sexual violence, sadness and suicidal ideation. 30 percent of teenage girls said they considered suicide, which is also an increase of almost 60 percent. In large part, this increase is credited to the isolating and disrupting effects of the pandemic. Other studies have shown that rates of depression in teens have also spiked due to the increased usage of social media. Nationwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers.

I started my career as a psychiatrist almost 15 years ago, specializing in child and adolescent mental and behavioral health; I now work as the chief medical officer at SonderMind, a mental and behavioral health provider. Over the last two decades, I’ve developed a particular interest in the concept of adolescent loneliness and its impact on our children’s mental health. 

We have all experienced loneliness during the pandemic. However, children who are naturally very social creatures have felt the negative effects of isolation more than anyone. During the pandemic, we depended on social media to stay connected—but it may have done us more harm than good. Children in particular have been done a disservice by these platforms. Studies have found that social media makes the effects of loneliness even worse: In a study in the Journal of Adolescence, researchers found that the psychological well-being of adolescents worldwide began to decline after 2012, in conjunction with the rise of smartphone access and increased internet use. According to a 2021 study from Common Sense Media and the Hope Lab, 21 percent of youth with moderate to severe depressive symptoms used social media “almost constantly.” Today 34 percent of teenagers experience these symptoms. What they think is connecting them with their peers may actually be making them feel more depressed and isolated. 

What they think is connecting them with their peers may actually be making them feel more depressed and isolated. 

After years of treating teens with anxiety and depression, these are my recommendations for parents if they are worried about their teenagers and want to support them: 

  1. Be a good listener. Be purposeful about listening to them, and be comfortable with silence. Silence can an important tool to connect with your teenager and fully understand what they are going through. They may take time to open up so the more you can listen, instead of speaking for them or jumping to assumptions, the better.
  1. Help your teen feel less alone by being open and honest about your own mental health struggles. Model positive behavior regarding your mental health. Talk to them about how your therapy appointment went. Let your teen know you get sad or depressed too. Practicing positive physical and mental wellness habits can encourage your child to engage in them as well.
  1. Help them evaluate how they use social media. Ask your child what they tend to do and look at on social media. Are they connecting with friends or strangers? Help your teen understand if social media makes them sad. Ask them how they feel emotionally when they use social media–are they happy? Bored? Lonely? Anxious? Ask them when they tend to feel the need to go on social media. Do they use it as a distraction from what’s happening in their lives, or because they have some free time in their day? Identifying the answers to these questions will help you and your teen understand how they use social media in their daily lives and how they can make a positive change in how they use it.
  1. Encourage getting help. One benefit of the pandemic is that it encouraged more openness about mental health and getting help, which means your teen probably has some friends in therapy. You can ask your teenager’s pediatrician or primary care doctor for a recommendation for a therapist, or search online. The more people who can watch out for your child, listen to them and try to help, the better off their mental health will be in the long run.

It’s an incredibly difficult time to be a teenager, especially a teenage girl. But as parents and caregivers, we can do our best to support them by identifying potential signs of depression or anxiety and getting them the help that they need as soon as possible. With more support and attention from their immediate community, they may begin to realize they aren’t as alone as they think. 

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Dr. Doug Newton is a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at SonderMind, where his clinical team works to redesign mental and behavioral healthcare through increased access, utilization and outcomes. Newton leads the clinical team in its efforts to recruit and support SonderMind providers who deliver high-quality care and equip those clinicians with tools and research to further improve care delivery, including an ongoing research partnership with the University of Denver to assess SonderMind’s care and outcomes. Prior to joining SonderMind, Newton served as national senior medical director at UnitedHealth Group and held several senior leadership roles at Kaiser Permanente and Colorado Permanente Medical Group (CPMG). He holds a B.S. and an M.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as a master’s in public health from Yale, and completed residency training in adult psychiatry at Dartmouth and a child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at University of Wisconsin-Madison.