Lesson of the Day: ‘It’s Life or Death: The Mental Health Crisis Among US Teens’

“American adolescence is undergoing a drastic change,” Matt Richtel writes. “Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders.”

Mr. Richtel spent more than a year interviewing teenagers, their families and mental health and childhood development experts about the mental health crisis among adolescents that numerous hospital and doctor groups have called “a national emergency.” The result is a multipart Times project called “The Inner Pandemic.”

In this lesson, you’ll read the main article from the project that reports on the crisis through the story of one 13-year-old named M. Then we invite you to reflect on your thoughts and about the state of mental health in teenagers today and put together an emotional wellness tool kit for when you are struggling.

When it comes to your mental health, how are you doing? Take a few minutes to write privately about how you have been feeling — mentally and emotionally — lately.

Next, look carefully at these graphs, which were created based on data, gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from extensive surveys of more than 10,000 US high school students from public and private schools across the country.

Then, reflect on your own in writing, or discuss with your classmates:

  • What do you notice in these graphs? What do you wonder?

  • Taken together, what story do these graphs tell about mental health among adolescents today?

  • Do these graphs reflect your own experience or that of your peers? Do any of them surprise you?

  • What do you think are some possible explanations for this data?

(Note: You can Participate in a live-moderated discussion on these graphs and more about teenage health with the American Statistical Association on Wednesday, May 11, as a part of our “What’s Going On in This Graph?” series.)

Read the articlethen answer the questions below.

(Note to teachers: If you’re doing this in a classroom context, you might jigsaw this article. All students should read and respond to the questions for Section 1. Then assign individuals or small groups to read each of the other three sections and answer the corresponding questions.)

Section 1: Introduction

1. The article says, “In December, in a rare public advisory, the US surgeon general warned of a ‘devastating’ mental health crisis among adolescents.” What are two pieces of evidence in the introduction that demonstrate that mental health among adolescents is a national crisis? Do you agree with this assessment?

2. What questions does this decline in mental health raise for you?

Section 2: ‘A typical outpatient’

3. The age of puberty onset has dropped markedly over the last century. How might this shift be contributing to the adolescent mental health crisis, according to experts?

4. What are at least four ways adolescence is different today than in past generations? How do experts explain these changes? What do you think are some possible explanations? What questions do you have?

Section 3: ‘A virtual crush’ and ‘Elaniv’

5. Emily Pluhar, a child and adolescent psychologist at Harvard, said that “the challenge and the progress” of modern adolescence “is there are so many types of identity.” In what ways might having so many choices be progress? In what ways might it be a challenge?

6. The article says, “Health experts note that, for all its weight, the adolescent crisis at least is unfolding in a more accepting environment.” Do you agree that people today are more accepting of mental health challenges? Give an example from the article, or from your own experience, to support your opinion.

7. Experts say a rise in loneliness is a key factor of declining mental health. Why do you think teenagers today are lonely? Do you agree with Bonnie Nagel, a psychologist at the Oregon Health & Science University, who believes that social media is part of the problem?

Section 4: ‘The pandemic factor’ and ‘Into the forest’

8. The article tells the story of the mental health crisis through M, a 13-year-old who has experienced severe depression, self-harm and a suicide attempt. Why do you think the author chose to write the article this way? How does M’s story help us better understand what young people today are going through as well as what might help them? Do you relate to any part of M’s experience?

9. Media Literacy: At the end of the article, there is a note about how the reporter, Mr. Richtel, spoke with adolescents and parents for this series. Why did he approach this story differently than he might have other stories? Do you think The Times made the right choice in granting these young people anonymity, given the paper’s high bar for that?

Option 1: Discuss and reflect.

On your own in writing, or in discussion with your classmates, respond to the following questions. (If you read this in a jigsaw format, form a small group with students who read the sections you didn’t share what you learned.):

  • What are the factors that may be contributing to the mental health crisis among teenagers, according to the article? Are there any other factors that you think are missing? If the reporter were to interview you and your classmates, what additional insights would you offer?

  • Overall, how accurate a picture do you think this article gives about the state of mental health among young people today? What in the article resonated with your experience? Is there anything you disagreed with? What questions do you still have?

  • How do you cope with anxiety, stress and other challenges? What practices or habits help improve your mental health?

  • What do you think adults in power, like politicians and school administrators, should do to address the mental health crisis among young people?

You can share your thoughts and read other teenagers’ responses to these questions and more on our related writing prompt.

Option 2: Watch a short documentary about the science behind the mental health crisis.

“Worried Sick: A Journey Into the Anxious Teenage Mind” is a 15-minute film that delves into the science behind the crisis: Why are depression, self-harm and suicide rising among American adolescents? What role do factors like social media, the early onset of puberty and the coronavirus pandemic play in this crisis? What can be done to address it?

Watch the film and then participate in our Film Club to discuss with other teenagers the emotions, messages and ideas that you took away from the documentary.

Option 3: Create a mental health tool kit.

Learning about the teenage mental health crisis can feel overwhelming. But it’s important to remember, experts say, that suicide is preventable, and mental health disorders, such as self-harm, depression and anxiety, are treatable.

How can you help keep yourself mentally healthy? How can you be prepared if you notice you are struggling and need help? Try creating a mental health tool kit that includes coping strategies, links to mental health resources and a list of adults you feel comfortable talking to. You might make a kit just for yourself or crowdsource ideas with your class that could help many students.

Here are some ideas, along with Times articles where you can find more information:

For coping mechanisms you can use in the moment, check out these articles for ideas on how to handle anxiety, stress, anger, sadness and more:

For strategies that can keep you mentally healthy, like getting enough sleep, meditating or exercising, here are a few resources:

Here are some people and places you might turn to when you are in crisis. Include names and contact information for each.

  • An adult you trust and feel comfortable talking to, such as a parent, family member, friend or teacher.

  • Your school’s nurse, counselor or social worker.

  • Your therapist or doctor.

  • Resources and help lines you can call or text when you are in crisis. You can find a list at SpeakingofSuicide.com/resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has information on other types of mental health crisis services.

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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