INDIANAPOLIS (OSV News) – When does “being a teenager” cross the line into a real mental health issue? What are the main causes of depression and anxiety in teenagers? Why is it growing? And how can faith help the healing process?
Between 2009 and 2019, the rate of teen depression nearly doubled, rising from 8.1 percent to 15.8 percent, according to a 2021 analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Studies over that decade. The latest NSDUH study for 2022 shows this figure has increased to 20.1 percent.
“Hormones are a factor” in adolescent mental health, said Diana Buxton, a licensed clinical social worker at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “The teenage brain is still developing. And teenagers generally just don’t talk to their parents.”
In interviews with The Criterion, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, two Catholic high school social workers and a licensed Catholic mental health counselor shared their insights about teens and mental health.
Some sources of teen anxiety and depression are quite common. The list of causes identified by the three interviewees was almost identical: pressure to make good grades, to excel in sports, to be accepted by peers; anxiety about the future; and family matters.
But all three also noted the tremendous impact of the pandemic and social media — especially via cellphones — that today’s adults never dealt with as teenagers.
“The pandemic has had a huge impact on the mental health of teenagers,” said Aly Weaver, a social worker at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. “Most students were (basically) on their own for two years trying to learn online. As a result, many teenagers suffer from social anxiety, generalized anxiety and/or depression.”
Weaver notes that teenagers may struggle with how to communicate their feelings, but that emotions such as “hopelessness or a constant feeling of sadness for no reason have often come up in sessions with children.”
Her local observations match the national findings.
A 2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the pandemic’s effect on teen mental health found that in 2021, 37 percent of high school students reported that they “experienced poor mental health” during the pandemic, and 44 percent reported “constantly feeling sad or hopeless. during the past year.”
“The pandemic brought more stressful times,” said licensed mental health counselor Justin Griswold of Pax Counseling LLC in Indianapolis. “For some, the extreme isolation and loneliness they felt was traumatic.
“It has been a difficult transition from online to face-to-face for many people, including teenagers,” he added. “And I think that results in a struggle to make and maintain good friendships, especially in adolescence.”
But the pandemic is not the main source of teen depression today, according to an April 11, 2022, article by Derek Thompson published in The Atlantic.
In the article, he quotes Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia: “The increase in teenage sadness is not a new trend, but rather the acceleration and expansion of a trend that clearly began before the pandemic.”
This trend is social media, especially through the use of smartphones.
“Around 2012, I noticed sudden changes in the behaviors and emotional states of teenagers,” said psychologist Jean Twenge in her September 15, 2017, article in The Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?”
After further research, she made a discovery: 2012 was the year when the number of Americans who owned a smartphone exceeded 50 percent. By 2015, the number had risen to 92 percent.
Other studies also show a link between social media use – mainly through smartphones – and teenage depression.
For example, a 2020 internal study by Facebook Inc., (now Meta) found that a third of teenage girls said Instagram “made them feel worse,” yet they felt “unable to stop themselves.” from the entrance.
Being “unstoppable” is true regardless of gender. Teens ages 13-18 spend an average of nine hours on their phones a day — not including homework — according to a 2021 study by Common Sense Media.
Part of the inability to put down the phone is the age group’s use of social media as an indicator of acceptance, Griswold said.
“One of the main tasks as a teenager is to stand out, to understand who I am compared to everyone else, trying to fit in and be accepted by a group of people,” he explained.
But there’s another, more scientific factor influencing teen overuse of smartphones, Griswold added.
“Phones are more like slot machines than a place for information,” he said. “They trigger a dopamine response that makes you want more, and teenagers are incredibly sensitive to dopamine.”
The negative impact on teenagers of all this screen time – especially using social media – is widespread. Griswold lists the risks as “exposure to hurtful people, cyberbullying, pornography, the stress of always being open, always in touch, fear of missing out – FOMO.”
And by staying up too late “hooking up with friends,” teenagers “are not doing their homework, they’re not getting enough sleep, so they’re tired and they can’t regulate their emotions as well,” he added.
Buxton said social media use “is a major factor in mental health issues in the students I see.”
“Comparison to others causes a lot of self-esteem issues,” she said, and information overload “causes a lot more feelings of confusion, pressure and stress.”
“There are other factors, of course, and the ‘nature versus environment’ debate is still active in relation to mental health,” she added.
Regardless of the cause of teen anxiety, stress, and depression, counseling can help.
“Imagine a tangled ball of yarn with many different colors. These are your thoughts and feelings all intertwined together,” Weaver said in explaining the benefits of teen counseling. “Sometimes it can be really hard to tease out any part of yourself. Without tools, these strands can stay tangled or stuck in place. A therapist is there to help you look at each part of the thread separately and pick them out to make more sense.”
As stress and anxiety levels rise, symptoms such as “isolation, trouble sleeping, being tired, falling grades, physical pain can all be indicators of a mental health problem,” Buxton said.
In the case of physical symptoms, she advises taking the teen to the doctor first to rule out any physical problems.
For behavioral symptoms, Griswold offers adults three tests to determine if a teen needs help: intensity, duration, and normal teen character.
For intensity, he said, consider whether the teen’s emotions “are greater than what would normally fit into a response, like if you take the phone away from them and they react violently and start throwing things.”
Similarly, notice how the behavior “fits the child’s typical character,” Griswold said. “If the child was irritable or short-tempered growing up, is (his current behavior) just part of his character? If it’s a big, drastic change from who they are, they may need help.”
Finally, he said, consider how long the behavior has been going on.
“Depending on the emotion, if it lasts longer than one to six months,” it may be time to “consider whether this is growing pains or whether it’s time to get help,” Griswold said.
He recommends that parents ask their struggling teens open-ended questions, such as, “What changes have you noticed in yourself?” and ask if they want help.
“You can say, ‘Let’s try one or two (counseling) sessions and see what you think,'” he suggested.
For non-parents who notice a teen struggling, Griswold recommends talking to parents “about the changes they’ve noticed and the impact it’s having. Come from a place of concern to soften that topic, such as, “I see a huge struggle your child is going through.”
One point that all three specialists emphasize is the importance of taking action on any signs or mentions of suicide or self-harm.
“If you see harm, it doesn’t matter if they want help or not — they need help,” Griswold said.
Buxton added that if a teenager tries to take his or her own life or mentions thoughts of doing so, “it should always be taken seriously. They might say, ‘I was just joking’ or ‘I didn’t mean it.’ but it still needs to be taken seriously because there could be something else going on. “When you don’t talk, that’s when problems continue and get more complicated.”
If the teen is open, incorporating faith into counseling “can bring a sense of purpose,” said Griswold, who has a master’s degree in counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, with an emphasis in Catholic/Christian counseling.
“It can help them understand their value and worth, and many of them are questioning their worth and value. Faith provides an answer to that.”
And being grounded in the Catholic faith in particular can help counselors help their clients — teen or not, he added.
“Our belief is helping (counselors) really understand the integration of the whole person – not just work on symptom reduction. It provides an understanding of how emotions, intellect, heart, soul, mind and body work together.”
Weaver said if a student wants, faith is woven into her sessions, “whether that means encouraging, praying, going to Mass or just using the time to reflect. It helps in many ways.”
The counseling team at Roncalli provides prayer cards and keys to the saints for the students they counsel, Buxton said, “like patron saints, being specific to what a student is dealing with. And we often offer the opportunity for a student to go to worship during school day if they’re having a hard time.”
Those experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health or substance use crisis should call or text 988 to reach the 24/7 national suicide and crisis line.
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