On February 13, the Centers for Disease Control published its biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report for 2011-2021 and it showed the truly alarming, and rapidly worsening, situation of the mental and spiritual health of high school students in the United States.
The Report documented that 42 percent of U.S. high school teens in 2021 said they felt persistently sad or hopeless, 22 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year, 18 percent had come up with a concrete plan on how they would end their life, and ten percent actually tried to carry out that plan (and thankfully failed).
As worrisome as those numbers are, the breakdown between boys and girls was even more distressing. 57 percent of high school girls felt persistently sad or hopeless (compared to 29 percent of boys), 30 percent of girls seriously contemplated suicide in the previous year (14 percent of boys) and 24 percent had a suicide plan (12 percent for boys).
And the rapid increase in persistent sadness and suicidal ideation among teenage girls is likewise startling: since 2011, persistent sadness and hopelessness had grown from 36 to 57 percent, suicidal thoughts from 19 to 30, and suicide plans from 15 to 24, a 60 percent increase in each category in a decade. (Over the same span, chronic sadness among high school boys had grown from 21 to 29 percent, suicidal thoughts from 13-14, and suicidal plans from 11-12).
Much of the media commentary on the numbers in the CDC’s Report focused on what had changed for girls since 2011 that would lead to such harrowing trends. Most of the attention focused on the rise of social media and its impact on the psychological health of girls, particularly the “compare and despair” that takes place as girls, working themselves through the bodily changes of pubescence, see images of their peers, celebrities and others and find themselves wanting in contrast. The advent of social media is likewise correlated to an explosion of teen girls beginning to self-identify as boys trapped in girls’ bodies, which far outpaces girls and women in other age groups experiencing similar gender confusion or teen boys self-identifying as girls. The Report demonstrates why honest and fearless research into the causes of the rapidly burgeoning mental health crisis among girls must accelerate.
But the larger picture must similarly be addressed: the staggering number of young people — 42 percent — who say they are persistently hopeless and unhappy and the 22 percent who have seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. Forty percent of high school students said that they felt so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year. This is a crisis that cannot be addressed adequately by anti-anxiety medications. Something far bigger is going on.
The CDC looked at some factors that might be contributing causes to the crisis, but noted that, over the course of the last decade, bullying, drug use, promiscuity and sexual violence all decreased or stayed about the same. It likewise looked into students’ sense of connectedness in school, their housing situation, and communication with their family, but none of these situations correlated to the swiftly growing problem.
It’s obvious that there is a crisis of hope underneath the persistent sadness and the consideration of ending one’s life. This is linked to a crisis of meaning, of the “why” of living, of what gives motivation to be able to change one’s own circumstances for the better, not to mention change one’s environment and the world.
This crisis of hope is linked to a crisis of faith. Gen Z, those born between 1999 and 2015, are experiencing a rapid decline of faith in God. Since 2010, religious practice among high schoolers has dropped 27 percent. Thirteen percent now define as atheist, 16 percent as agnostic.
In his 2008 encyclical of Christian hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict described hopelessness as St. Paul once did to the Christians in Ephesus, connecting those living “without hope” to those living “without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Hope comes from recognizing, Pope Benedict said, that God is with us in the world, bringing good out of evil, bringing justice to victims, helping us find eternal meaning even in the most ordinary activities. The failure to transmit the faith effectively to younger generations, and the rise of secularism with its practical atheism spurring people to live as if God doesn’t exist, is doubtless abetting the crisis of our young.
Similarly, the multi-pronged crisis of the family has to be a contributing cause. The trauma of divorce, the absence of father figures, the loneliness that comes from fewer brothers and sisters leading the young to try to earn friends outside the home, the competition for love and attention against parents’ new boyfriends or girlfriends can all create a crisis in the sense of feeling genuinely and stably loved. Being unconditionally and firmly loved is the real source of joy, of what can provide hope in the midst of setbacks and contradictions.
Young persons’ perceptions of that love cannot be taken for granted, especially when they are struggling in authentic self-love while experiencing rapid changes within and around them. As John Paul II once famously said, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor Hominis 10). The cultural drugs of consumerist materialism and hedonism can distract us from this fundamental human need for a while, but not forever. Our young people’s sadness, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts are a desperate cry for this attentive love in the midst of their existential and ever-urgent questions.
There is also a need to train the young in how to deal well with the inevitable suffering life brings. We can often try to insulate children from suffering, surrounding them with material comforts, keeping them away from the bedsides and funerals of relatives, fighting doggedly to defend them against teachers’ just feedback or coaches’ decisions to discipline them or keep them on the bench. The motivations here are normally fine, but the unintended side-effects can be that today’s young people have not received what previous generations have, those who have lived through depressions and recessions, world wars and cold wars, and survived chronic situations of want. Many of the young today have not attended such a boot camp of life or school of suffering and when the emotional and spiritual pains come, they are often ill-equipped. Many can’t draw on the experience of perseverance through pain and of the relief that comes.
Culturally, rather than assisting them to grow in this wisdom, many in our culture are causing confusion. Those promoting the right to suicide — indeed, glorifying it as a dignified, noble choice in response to suffering — are doing incalculable harm. Either suicide is an evil, a cry for help and loving compassion, an issue of mental health and effective pain management, a tragedy we’re trying to prevent, or it is good for individuals in any type of pain, a good for their families and friends to be unburdened of care-giving, a good for the society, saved of the costs of their health care and the infection of their depression. The right to die movement is proclaiming that life, sometimes, is just not worth living, and how can those well-funded messages catering to our sense of individualism, autonomy, and a fear of being dependent, not have an impact on our youth? Out of love for our youth and anyone else tempted toward suicide, we must vigorously and perseveringly oppose this cultural poison.
As we continue to digest the CDC Report, search for the causes of the unsettling trends, and try to find appropriate remedies, it’s a time for all of us to check in on the young people in our life, especially girls, to ask how they’re doing, to talk to them about the pressures they’re under, to ask about how their friends are doing, and to start communicating to them, more intentionally and explicitly, the reasons for hope we have within us (1 Pet 3:15).