Teen girls reported record levels of violence, sadness, and thoughts of suicide in 2021, experiencing distress at twice the rate of teen boys, according to new federal data released Monday.
The nearly 3 in 5 teen girls who felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 was a 60% increase compared to a decade earlier.
That finding is just one of several alarming data points in the latest version of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which also identified higher rates of mental health issues and suicidal behavior among teens who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning.
The new survey is the latest to capture the growing mental health crisis among youths in the U.S., which was building before the pandemic and was exacerbated by the ensuing disruptions. The country’s under-resourced mental health infrastructure has been struggling to keep up.
“These data show a distressing picture: America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave” of sadness and trauma, Debra Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer, told reporters Monday.
“These data are hard to hear, and should result in action,” Houry added.
Conducted in fall 2021, the survey is the first iteration to account for the impact of the pandemic. The survey, which is done every other year, asks teens about their mental health and well-being, sexual behaviors, substance use, and other issues. The 2021 survey was also the first to ask about social determinants of health like housing stability and certain factors that are protective, including parental involvement and feeling close to people at school.
The survey found that teens broadly reported increasing mental health issues, experiences of violence, and thoughts of suicide, but that certain groups face higher rates of distress and harm. Teen girls, for example, “are faring more poorly than male students” on nearly every measure included in the survey, the authors wrote.
Nearly 1 in 5 female students reported experiencing sexual violence, up 20% since 2017. About 30% had seriously considered attempting suicide, up nearly 60% from 2011.
LGBQ+ teens also reported higher rates of mental health issues and violence. Nearly 70% of LGBQ+ students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year. More than 1 in 5 had attempted suicide in the past year.
The researchers noted that there are less consistent disparities in the data when looking at race and ethnicity.
The 2021 survey found that teens continued to experience lower rates of certain risky sexual behaviors (including any sexual activity and having multiple sex partners) and substance use, as well as bullying in school.
“Unfortunately,” the authors wrote, “almost all other indicators of health and well-being in this report including protective sexual behaviors …, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors worsened significantly.” Protective sexual behavior includes using condoms and STD and HIV testing.
The researchers behind the new survey argued that schools can play a bigger role in helping address the distress experienced by teens. Schools, the authors wrote, can offer programs and connections that prove protective against mental health issues.
The new report outlines several steps that schools and partners can take to address mental health issues, including working to help all students — particularly students of color and LGBTQ+ students — feel more connected through initiatives like youth development programs and inclusivity efforts. Schools can also link families and students with community resources (one area in particular disrupted by the pandemic) and provide more education about mental, physical, and sexual health.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.