• New CDC data shows that 44% of teens in the United States report feeling persistently sad and hopeless, up from 37% in 2019.
  • Contributing factors include loss of a caregiver, financial difficulty, hunger and food insecurity, less socialization, physical and emotional abuse at home, and larger systemic issues.
  • Experts say increased social connectedness, healing-centered education, and bringing more psychologists and counselors into schools may help.

It’s never been easy to be a teenager, but today’s youth are grappling with a mental health crisis of epic proportions.

An April 2022 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey — shows that 44% of teens feel “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.”

According to previous CDC data, this is an increase from around 26% in 2009 and 37% in 2019.

The startling data demonstrate how a growing youth mental health crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mental health problems in youth are associated with behavioral risks, such as drug use, experiencing violence, and higher-risk sexual behaviors,” said Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the CDC, in an email to Psych Central.

“These problems can have lasting and negative effects well into adulthood.”

The state of teenage mental health goes beyond sadness and hopelessness.

The CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey shows that more than a third of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.

They surveyed nearly 8,000 high school students from January to June 2021. Key findings include:

  • 55% of students reported emotional abuse by a caregiver or other adult at home
  • 11% of students experienced physical abuse at home
  • 29% of students said a caregiver or other adult in their home lost a job

“Families have been under heightened stress during the pandemic, which likely contributed to some of the severe outcomes we see in our data,” Ethier said.

“Right now, young people need all the support we can give them.”

Impact on marginalized groups

Youth in marginalized groups often experience racism and discrimination, which significantly affects their mental well-being.

The CDC data shows that more than a third of high school students experienced racism at school, either before or during the pandemic.

The highest levels of racism were reported by Asian students (64%) and Black students and students of multiple races (both 55%).

“The CDC has declared racism a serious public health threat and our data help show us why,” Ethier said. “Students who experienced racism at school were more likely to report that they also experienced poor mental health than those who had not experienced racism.”

In addition, the findings highlight severe mental health outcomes among both LGBTQ youth and female youth:

  • 74% of LGBTQ youth and 63% of female youth reported emotional abuse at home
  • 26% of LGBTQ youth and 12% of female youth attempted suicide

“These were much higher levels than we saw for heterosexual students and male students,” Ethier said.

Youth mental health in the United States has been declining for more than a decade.

The pandemic has only worsened the situation, with marginalized groups and individuals of low socioeconomic status disproportionately affected.

“The pandemic simply laid these conditions bare and exacerbated them,” said Kia Darling-Hammond, PhD, founder and CEO of Wise Chipmunk, an education research firm in Palo Alto, California, and co-author of the forthcoming book, “The Civil Rights Road to Deeper Learning.”

“In a nation as wealthy as ours, it was — and still is — possible to eliminate housing and food insecurity of all kinds. Doing so will reduce key stressors that impact people’s mental health, behavior, and attention.”

Darling-Hammond added that the pandemic is still far from over and that many people still face significant social, emotional, and financial challenges.

“Young people’s experiences at school are impacted by myriad factors, including institutional shortcomings that predate the pandemic,” she said.

The CDC data illustrates the importance of social connectedness. Students who feel disconnected from others at school had worse mental health.

In fact, only 47% of teens felt close to adults and peers at school during the pandemic. This lack of social connection led to increased risks for:

The risks only increased for youth who experienced racism and for LGBTQ youth, who reported lower levels of social connection.

According to Ethier, there are specific practices that schools can put into place to help young people feel safer and more connected.

“Schools can foster structured classroom environments, provide programs that get youth into communities, and bring mentors into schools,” Ethier said. “All of these activities increase school connectedness.”

In addition, a 2022 study shows that schools with policies and practices supporting LGBTQ youth have a positive effect on the mental well-being of all youth at school. These supports may include:

  • LGBTQ-affirming clubs
  • safe and inclusive spaces
  • professional development for educators
  • anti-harassment policies

“When schools are less toxic for youth at increased risk for severe outcomes, schools are less toxic for everyone,” Ethier said.

If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone

You can access free support right away with these resources:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Crisis Text Line.Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line.Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line.Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide.This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.

Improvements to youth well-being won’t happen overnight, but there are strategies that could help pave the way forward.

For instance, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced on April 12 that clinicians should begin screening all children ages 8–18 for anxiety.

Research from 2020 shows that many mental health conditions, such as anxiety and mood disorders, are treatable, especially when diagnosed early. Yet a large national study from 2019 shows nearly half of children with mental health conditions don’t receive appropriate treatment.

Systemic and institutional issues

For real change to occur, it may need to start at the top. According to Darling-Hammond, key structural changes might look like:

  • more affordable housing
  • more job opportunities
  • making healthcare more accessible
  • reducing stressors like debt

Still, these aren’t exactly quick fixes. Many people will continue to face difficulty even after the pandemic has ended.

“You can’t self-care your way out of the harm of systemic oppression,” Darling-Hammond said.

Mental health care at schools

In President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, he pledged $1 billion in funding to bring more psychologists and counselors to schools.

​​Having dedicated mental health professionals available to schools is incredibly important,” Ethier said.

“But teachers have an important role to play since they spend more time with our youth than anyone else in school — they may recognize issues before other staff, and it’s important they have professional development on mental health issues.”

Of course, putting the added responsibility of monitoring child well-being onto teachers — many of whom are burnt out — means that teacher mental health should also be a priority.

“We want to make sure we’re empowering [teachers] and not over-burdening them — making sure they’re connected to a larger system of care and support is essential,” Ethier said.

Healing-centered education

Children spend a large portion of their time at school, often bringing their lived experiences with them into classrooms.

Darling-Hammond is a proponent of healing-centered education, an approach that acknowledges trauma through the lens of social and emotional learning (SEL).

For teens, a healing-centered approach might prioritize their developmental needs for autonomy, respect, and identity affirmation.

Some healing-centered approaches may also implement mindfulness or social justice programs, and while these are a great start, they’re not always enough on their own.

“The conditions outside of schools that create fatigue, stress, trauma, despair, don’t disappear just because [students] get to do breathing exercises in homeroom,” Darling-Hammond said. “Children’s care, learning, and development have always needed to be a community-wide effort.”

For parents and educators interested in learning more about healing-centered education, Darling-Hammond recommends the following resources:

A 2021 study shows that 1 in 500 children in the United States lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, highlighting an ongoing need for grief and mourning support for young people.

In addition, a lack of social connection or non-belonging may also have negative psychological implications similar to grief.

According to Darling-Hammond, grief and mourning support could include culturally responsive therapeutic care and continued work at developing antiracist or anti-oppressive awareness, coming face-to-face with ourselves and the harm we’ve caused others.

“We live in a society that doesn’t know how to mourn and it shows,” Darling-Hammond said.

Despite that schools have reopened and many teens have returned to some level of post-pandemic “normalcy,” the long-term mental health repercussions for young people are not yet known.

Still, youth with poor mental health may continue to face difficulty with school and grades, decision making, and their health — and could experience lingering adverse effects well into adulthood.

The stark CDC report reflects “a cry for help” from our young people and a need for systemic change and action.

“If we don’t take care of the conditions and we don’t take care of each other, we can’t solve these problems — period,” Darling-Hammond said. “Root causes matter.”