Teen Mental Health Crisis

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

There was a terrific article from the McKinsey Health Institute last week, “Getting to the bottom of the teen mental health crisis” – and since September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, this is a good time to understand what our teens are experiencing…

You can read the entire article – or listen to the 30min podcast – HERE – and see some of my favorite highlights below…

Worldwide, at least 200 million children and teenagers struggle with a mental health disorder. And in the US, around 17.1 million young people have a mental health disorder by the age of 18.

Girls, in particular, are really in crisis.

According to the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], almost 60 percent of US teen girls said they felt persistently sad or hopeless. And one in three seriously had contemplated attempting suicide in 2021. That’s almost a 60 percent increase from the decade before.

The most chilling fact is that the numbers of teen suicides jumped from 2007 to 2018 – And that’s before the pandemic.

(In a) global survey across 26 countries with over 40,000 respondents…Gen Z reported a perceived mental health that was much poorer than any other generation.

We know that the more hours parents spend on the internet has a definite effect on kids. As many as 50 percent of adults were watching digital media for four or more hours a day, along with 40 percent of their children. That is a worrisome amount of time, because the more hours you spend on the internet or social media, the less hours you sleep. There is more sleep deprivation, there’s less exercise, and there’s less real live interactions. And we certainly need all three of those for healthy brain development.

When we did our global survey across 26 countries, close to three-quarters of Gen Z respondents felt they spent too much time online. Often, there’s an acknowledgement that it’s probably not the best thing, but it’s hard for them to get away from it.

COVID-19 took a bad situation and made it exponentially worse. Think about worrying about your grandparents dying, or losing a caregiver. Recovering from this trauma could take over a decade.

I think those are the kids who have been most affected by COVID-19, by the loss of two years of school and social interactions, and by worries about the future, their health, and their parents’ health.

So I think the rates of depression and anxiety and loneliness are going to continue to rise unless we start thinking about a whole different way of approaching this problem.

At the Child Mind Institute, we’ve invested in public awareness campaigns since 2017. Most recently, we did the You Got This campaign. And I am amazed at the power of athletes like Kevin Love or Brandon Marshall. They’re the epitome of physical health, so when they talk about their anxiety or their depression, teenage boys really respond to that and draw inspiration in dealing with their own mental health problems.

Are there approaches that work particularly well for girls and young women? Girls are much more available. They talk about things. They seem to have less shame and less embarrassment about their struggles. Frankly, we’ve always had an easier time getting female actors and athletes to participate in these programs.

So in May 2017, it was Emma Stone talking about her anxiety. It was life-changing for girls to see an impressive, creative person—who on screen looks completely carefree—say that they’ve struggled in life and that therapy worked and made things easier.

I think one of the reasons we see higher numbers of anxiety and depression in girls post-puberty is that there is a hormonal difference. We see many more boys who are disruptive in pre-pubertal times. But we know that girls wait a shorter period of time to get help. When they’re in pain, they are more likely to tell a friend, and they’re more likely to seek help. I think boys tend to be more vulnerable to looking weak. That’s one of the reasons athletes seem to have so much more power as influencers than we previously imagined in the mental health sphere.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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