Youth Mental Health: Understanding Rising Depression Rates

4 min read

| Barbara Wexler, M.P.H. |

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so let’s discuss mental health in the young. In recent years, there has been a surge of mental health problems among young people, with anxiety and depression predominating. Initially, this surge was attributed to COVID-19–related lockdowns and isolation, but even as the pandemic subsided, unprecedented numbers of children and teens continued to suffer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2021, more than 1 in 5 high school students seriously considered suicide.1This trend merits urgent attention and a better understanding of why young people are struggling with their mental health. Without knowing what is causing or contributing to the rising rates of anxiety and depression, it’s challenging to develop effective treatment to address these problems.

Approximately half of all mental disorders surface by age 14 and three-quarters by age 24.2 Left untreated, mental illness can rob children and adolescents of enjoying what should be some of the best years of their lives.

To date, no one has been able to definitively identify the reasons for the surge, but there are several theories that propose societal, economic, and technological causes. One cause may be the mounting pressures young people face in various aspects of their lives. From global issues like political turmoil, economic uncertainty, threats of war, and climate change to academic pressure and social media influences, today’s youth are contending with a lot of stressors. Although academic and social pressures aren’t new, the prominence of social media in young people’s lives is relatively recent, and there’s evidence that it intensifies feelings of inadequacy, as adolescents compare their lives to curated online personas, which often leads to diminished self-esteem.

While technology offers benefits and opportunities for connection, it also poses challenges to mental health. Excessive screen time, cyberbullying, and 24/7 news can overwhelm young people and contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. Further, the addictive nature of social media can interfere with sleep and worsen feelings of inadequacy and FOMO (fear of missing out).

Economic and geopolitical instability exacerbate stress for young people. They worry about gaining financial independence, especially in a rapidly changing job market where artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to reduce or eliminate the need for many workers.

Societal stigma surrounding mental health issues often prevents young people from seeking help. Despite growing awareness and advocacy efforts, there’s still a corrosive culture of silence and shame surrounding mental illness. This stigma can be an obstacle to seeking support, leaving young people feeling isolated and unsupported. Even youth who want mental health help often cannot access it because, historically, mental health care has been underfunded.2 There aren’t enough mental health clinicians to meet the growing demand for services for adults or youth, especially in rural communities.3

Less support from communities and families has left many young people feeling alone and fearful. Traditional sources of support, such as extended family, neighbors, and community, have weakened, and the loss of these ties and support systems can contribute to the development of mental health issues and hinder recovery efforts.

Effectively addressing this crisis requires a comprehensive approach that identifies and addresses the causes of mental illness while promoting emotional resilience. Efforts to establish and cultivate supportive environments, reduce stigma, and improve access to effective mental health care can help children, preteens, and teens navigate the challenges of adolescence and emerge as stronger and more-resilient young adults. Gale Health and Wellness provides a wealth of information on mental health, mental illness, and related topics like stigma and resilience. Please visit the Mental health portal page to begin learning more

1 Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary & Report 2011-2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention Division of Adolescent and School Health, (accessed April 18, 2024).

2 McKinsey Health Institute. A “universal human right’: Quality mental healthcare for children. April 17, 2024. (accessed April 18, 2024).

3 Rural Mental Health. Rural Health Information Hub. 2024. (accessed April 18, 2024).

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