How Do We Fix The Teenage Mental Health Crisis?

Ross Szabo offers his perspective on what needs to be done to improve teenage mental health.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 30, 2022

A new study published in The Journal of Psychology adds another data point to a disquieting trend in clinical psychology: teenage mental health is plummeting and social media is a major contributing factor.

The researchers, led by María Dolores Sánchez-Hernandez of the University of Granada in Spain, found that teenagers' moment-to-moment emotional state was directly linked to the number of likes they received on an Instagram post. Moreover, teenagers who tended to engage in social comparison were particularly affected by the number of likes they received on their posts, as were older teenagers (ages 15-18).

"Peer support and acceptance is a major concern during middle and late adolescence," says Sánchez-Hernandez. "Therefore, adolescents in this stage may engage to a greater extent in 'social surveillance' and approval-seeking based on the content posted on Instagram."

This study comes on the heels of recent testimony delivered by NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, in which Haidt highlighted some alarming statistics surrounding teen mental health. For instance, Haidt noted:

  • Teenage mental health has deteriorated rapidly since 2010, coinciding with the advent of social media
  • The crisis is specific to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression
  • The crisis is disproportionately affecting female teenagers, who tend to use social media more than males
  • The crisis has affected teens across the world, not just in the United States
  • Teens who use their phones 4-5 hours a day are significantly more likely to be depressed than teens who use their phones an hour or less per day

I recently reached out to Ross Szabo, former Director of Outreach of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign and founder of Human Power Project, a mental health education company that offers curricula used in schools across the country, to share his opinion on this concerning trend. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Is now the right time to be sounding the alarm bells when it comes to teenage mental health?

It definitely is. All of this data is showing a crisis and schools are seeing this play out in a major way. The most important thing to remember is that the second-largest period of brain growth is from ages 12 to 25 and what happens during that time frame can often shape a person for life. It's a critical time for the development of coping mechanisms, internal voice, identity, and habits. When teenagers have untreated mental health issues and/or develop unhealthy habits during this time, it can take decades to undo it. Sometimes being an adult is undoing what you went through in adolescence. Teens need help.

What do you see as the solution to this growing problem?

This mental health crisis is a giant puzzle. One missing piece to that puzzle is teaching about mental health in schools. At my school, Geffen Academy at UCLA, we have a weekly class for students in grades 6-12 that teaches them about their mental health. We teach about mental health the same way we teach about physical health. We focus on mental health vocabulary, brain development, coping mechanisms, how to use good stress, healthy relationships, and healthy sexuality. The main goal is to normalize mental health as a part of our student's education. It makes a huge difference in how they talk about and conceptualize mental health.

What more can be done to educate kids and parents on how to care for their mental health?

Some of the most important things that families can do are to know their family history with mental health, educate themselves and have conversations at the youngest age possible. Families that have mental health disorders or addiction have a biological predisposition to have more people experience the issues. Knowing what disorders people have can help parents talk about these issues with their kids. It can also help families identify warning signs quicker if someone in a family does start to experience symptoms. The more a family can normalize these conversations the easier it may be for someone to not live in shame or embarrassment. Families have normalized talking about the gene that causes breast cancer to the point where people get preventative double mastectomies. We can take a similar approach to make mental health more familiar.

What advice do you have for parents who have a child who is struggling with their mental health?

Try to turn confrontation into conversation. Know the line between empowering and enabling. Take care of yourself. Homes with teens who have mental health issues are often filled with conflict about everything. One way to turn confrontation into conversation is to make the teen the expert on the subject as a way to invite conversation. For example, if you're worried your teen is vaping, then ask them what they know about vaping. Ask if they know anyone who vapes. Ask them what they think of vaping. And then ask if they are vaping. This values their opinion and perspective and is more conversational than just telling them to not vape. Being a parent is often walking the line between empowering and enabling. That line is different for each person, but pay attention to what a teenager needs to feel empowered to do things. Lastly, take care of yourself. Much like the oxygen mask on the plane, you need to make sure your mental health is okay, so you can be there for your kids.

What might you say to teenagers and young adults who are having difficulty adapting to a world of liking, swiping, and scrolling?

Every teenager I talk to knows social media isn't real, but it is addictive and it does have consequences. The most important thing someone can do is take breaks from social media and check in with people in real life for their reactions. Take time to connect with your friends, family, and people at school to see how people interact with you instead of only relying on social media. When you are on social media, post about all kinds of things that matter to you and not just the best things or sides of you that may be superficial. The more authentic you are on social media, the more authentic your experiences can be on and offline.