Teen girls in the United States experienced record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk in recent years, amid “significant” and “heartbreaking” declines in youth health and well-being overall, according to data published Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Responses for the CDC’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey were collected in the fall of 2021, offering the first look at trends since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Many measures were moving in the wrong direction before the pandemic. These data show the mental health crisis among young people continues,” Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, said at a media briefing. The findings are “alarming,” she said.
The survey found increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behavior among all teens. More than 40% of high school students said that feelings of sadness or hopelessness prevented them from engaging in their regular activities for at least two weeks of the year.
Girls broadly fared worse than boys, and there is “ongoing and extreme distress” among teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning (LGBQ+).
Most teen girls (57%) felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, double the rate for teen boys (29%). Nearly one in three teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide. Both rates “increased dramatically” over the past decade, according to the CDC.
Most LGBQ+ students (52%) have also recently experienced poor mental health and more than one in five attempted suicide in the past year.
“These data show a distressing picture,” said Dr. Debra Houry, CDC’s chief medical officer and deputy director for program and science. “America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma.”
Few measures of adolescent health and well-being showed continued improvement, including declines in risky sexual behavior, substance use and bullying at school. But most other indicators “worsened significantly,” according to the CDC report.
The latest data show increases in the proportion of youth who did not go to school because of safety concerns. There were also increases in teen girls experiencing sexual violence and teen boys experiencing electronic bullying.
Nearly one in five teen girls (18%) had experienced sexual violence in the past year and about one in seven (14%) had ever been forced to have sex.
“These data are clear: our young people are in crisis,” Ethier said.
CDC leaders, along with National PTA President Anna King, emphasized the important role schools play.
“Schools are on the front lines of the mental health crisis and they must be equipped with the proven tools that help students thrive,” Houry said.
Among those tools are training for staff to recognize and manage mental health challenges, counseling and mentorship programs and others that encourage connection and intervention.
King called for action from Congress to address the youth mental health crisis and emphasized the importance of regular conversations about mental health.
“It’s critical to talk with our children about what they’re feeling and their concerns,” she said. “I’m urging our families to come together, look for signs, look for ways that you can have these conversations with your children. Get to know them. Have these routine conversations all the time.”
Many of the challenges facing youth health and well-being are “preventable,” Houry said. “When I look toward our young people’s future, I want to be filled with hope, not heartbreak.”