The current state of children and adolescents’ mental health in the U.S.

Although the pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns within children and teenagers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there was already a concerning foundation of poor mental health and rising mental health struggles within children and adolescents in the U.S. Mental health concerns and suicide rates have risen steadily from 2010 onward.1 We have a mental health crisis within our youth. Here are just a few snapshots of how bad the crisis has gotten:

  • Over 8 million U.S. children ages 3-17 had a current diagnosed mental health condition in 2018 and 2019.2
  • Only 53.2% of children with a mental health condition received treatment or counseling in 2018-2019.2
  • 37% of high school students reported poor mental health during COVID-19 in 2021.3
  • 44% of high school students reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during 2021.3
  • 11% of high school students experienced physical abuse (hitting, beating, kicking) by an adult in their home.3
  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 by 2018.1
  • Suicide attempts by Black adolescents rose 73% from 1991 to 2017.4

In fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) jointly declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health. This is an emergency that we all need to be paying attention to and addressing.

How did the mental health crisis happen?

There is not an easy answer to the question of how this crisis happened, and experts do not agree on why mental health within children and adolescents keeps getting worse. Social media and the internet are frequently blamed, but there is limited solid evidence that this is a primary cause. Studies do show that adolescents who experience cyber-bullying experience higher rates of mental health concerns than adolescents who do not.5

Correlated to an increase in adolescent usage of social media, there are studies that show that teens in general are getting less sleep,6 having less in-person interactions,7 and getting less exercise than they used to (and that they should).8 All three of these have been proven to highly impact mental health, wellbeing, and cognitive development within children.

Ultimately, children’s current conditions and environment are a huge concern in terms of their mental health and happiness. We have had an overwhelming amount of turmoil over the past 10 years, and the level of support has not been increasing and keeping pace with the rising amount of cultural and community difficulties.

Children and teenagers are struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, compulsive behaviors, trauma, and loneliness. They face instability at home, instability at school, family and economic stress, and a lack of community support.

What can we do to address the adolescent mental health crisis?

There is no fast and easy solution for this dire crisis. Experts on the front-line working directly with children and teenagers are asking for:

  • Funds for screening, diagnosis, and treatment to help families and children.
  • Changes to regulations and policies that currently make accessing technology and telehealth difficult or impossible.
  • Increases and implementations of funding for school-based mental healthcare.
  • Suicide-prevention programs within schools and community centers.
  • Implementation of trauma training and services within schools, care systems, and community centers.
  • Increases of the availability of evidence-based behavioral health services.

Many of these are state- and federal-level policy changes. While we work to call attention to needed policy changes, we can also work at a local, organizational, and family level to connect children and teenagers with mental health support. Here are a few best practices that can help.

Create safe spaces that are judgment-free

A safe space is a place (either literally or figuratively) where a young person can go to relax, recharge, open up, and feel secure enough to take risks, be honest, be vulnerable, and explore. To create a safe space for children, be open to hearing from the child, ask first before responding or advising, don’t react strongly even if you’re dealing with intense issues, be empathetic, and don’t ignore the issues and feelings at hand even if they seem trivial.

Talk about important topics

Almost all children and teenagers are more aware than you think of heavy, critical topics that we are all facing as a country. Be open to talking about and hearing their concerns around war, financial struggles, body image, sex, illness, death—just to name a few. Be attentive, be honest, acknowledge emotions, ask open-ended questions, and be supportive. They’re thinking about these issues, and you can help frame the conversations and understand how they are feeling.

Encourage healthy habits

As mentioned above, sleep and exercise are vital to development and wellbeing, but most children and adolescents are getting less of both. Incorporate routines for both within your family or at your school or organization. Talk about nutrition and eating without putting it in terms of “dieting” or “restricting.”

Open communication with their community

Children and teenagers should have a community of support who help them in different stages and at different places in their lives. Ensure that you’re talking with everyone involved. Parents should be talking with teachers. Teachers should be talking with school counselors. Parents should be talking with their child’s friends and their parents. This isn’t about being intrusive or removing privacy, it’s about keeping an open line of communication and broadening support to an entire community.

Address everyone’s mental health

It should go without saying, but children and teenagers look for role models and guidance. If you’re paying attention to your mental health and wellbeing, then you’re modeling best practices for children. So, when was the last time you put in some focused care on your mental health?

Open EAP and mental health solutions and services to your whole family

Uprise Health offers our EAP and mental health services and solutions to our members’ families. We provide counseling, coaching, crisis support, CBT-based courses, and comprehensive educational resources for any of our members’ dependents. We are eager to help address any concerns no matter what a child is struggling with. We will match the right services and solutions to the child’s experiences and needs. For more information on how we can help, check out our how mental health platform works.