The Mental Health Crisis

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Sydney Williams June 15, 2022 Founders Corner

What defines a crisis? How about 1 in 2 high school students feeling hopelessness or sadness—or 1 in 4 experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

That’s the latest national data from the CDC. Three years ago, it reported 1 in 3 students feeling hopelessness or sadness, and 1 in 6 having suicidal thoughts, which was up from about 1 in 9 ten years earlier.

Anxiety, depression, and feelings of exclusion have been worsening for years. School closures, social isolation, and family economic hardship during the pandemic elevated these issues.

Healthy Minds Network found that, among college students, rates of depression increased 135% and anxiety 110% from 2013 to 2021. The number of students who met the criteria for one or more mental health problems had doubled over the eight years.

Number One Problem

According to Pew Research (Feb 2019), teens view anxiety and depression as the number one problem among their peers. 70% call it a major problem versus 55% for bullying, 51% for drug use, and 45% for drinking. They hold a consistent view regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status.

Anxiety and Depression Top Problems

Root Causes

Social pressures, from physical appearance to fitting in, trigger anxiety and depression. At the top of the list: expectations for good grades.

Pressure To Get Good Grades

Most teens (61%) say they personally feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, and another 27% say they feel some pressure to do so. Compared with getting good grades, about half as many say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (29%) and to fit in socially (28%). Roughly one-in-five say they face a lot of pressure to be involved in extracurricular activities and to be good at sports (21% each), while smaller shares say they feel a lot of pressure to help their family financially (13%), to participate in religious activities (8%), to be sexually active (8%), to drink alcohol (6%) or to use drugs (4%).

Girls are more likely than boys to say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (35% vs. 23%). And teens in the lower- and middle-income groups are more likely than those in higher-income households to say they feel at least some pressure to help their family financially (42% and 38%, respectively, vs. 28%). —Pew

Social Media

Social media aggravates pressures. Fishbowl-like conversations squeeze self-dependence. High school and college students, an age group already socially sensitive, rarely process thoughts and emotions in settings that don’t include friends, peers, and, in many (most) instances, total strangers. 

The University of Pennsylvania first connected social media to depression. Researchers linked Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use to decreased well-being. At the time of the study, in 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone versus 73% four years earlier. 45% said they were online constantly.

As of the fall of 2021, the three most popular social media apps among teens were SnapChat (35%), TikTok (30%), and Instagram (22%). TikTok became the pandemic darling, starting at just 4% share in popularity prior to COVID-19’s onset.

More Time On Screens

A teen spends more than five and a half hours on leisure activities—more than any other activity except for sleeping (Pew Feb 2019). At 3 hours and 4 minutes on average, screen time accounts 60% of leisure (20% of time awake). Screen time can include gaming, surfing the web, watching videos and watching TV.

A Day In the Life of a Teen

On weekends, screen time increases to almost four hours a day (3 hours, 53 minutes), 75 minutes more than during the week.

Although screen time has held steady over the past decade, its balance has shifted more to social media.

Harder Time Relating

Even before the pandemic, teens spent less time socializing in-person than they had ten years before. They also worked in paid jobs for half the amount of time they had in the past.

Today’s teens relate far less to traditional social expectations.

They are less happy.

Behaviors For Life

How young people deal with pressures in high school and college, especially, stays with them.

“College is a key developmental time; the age of onset for lifetime mental health problems also directly coincides with traditional college years—75% of lifetime mental health problems will onset by age 24,” says Sarah K. Lipson, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management.

With so much at stake, mentors and educators would be wise to encourage different ways for young people to solve problems. 

How about writing down thoughts and emotions that social groups cannot judge or sway?

Journaling and Mental Health

Studies show that keeping a journal helps people manage mental health challenges. A 2018 report illustrates the positive effect of web-based journaling. Researchers concluded that journaling decreases mental distress and increases well-being. Subjects had greater resilience relative to usual care.

Health benefits range from improved immune functions to better memory functions. Journaling also supports self-reflection and independent thinking.

It’s a straightforward, cost-effective therapy.

Journaling Prompts

Journaling prompts are creative writing prompts that are meant to inspire a stream of consciousness about a range of topics. They are a great tool to inspire new ideas and one of the best ways to help yourself get into a journaling habit when you’ve embarked on a journey of self discovery.

Sample therapeutic prompts:

  1. What do you feel about your day today and why?
  2. What made you feel happy today?
  3. What made you feel uneasy today?
  4. What three things are you grateful for today?

Sample self-worth prompts:

  1. What is something you love most about yourself and why?
  2. What is something you like most about yourself and why?
  3. What is something that you think other people value about you and why?
  4. Who has had a negative impact on your confidence level? What specific memories come to mind as to why?
  5. Who has had a positive impact on your confidence level? What specific memories come to mind as to why?

Journaling works. So does having someone close at school.

Coaches Improve Mental Health

Students who feel close to someone at school experience fewer mental health problems. The same CDC study that reports 1 in 4 students having suicidal thoughts, shows levels half as high among students who feel close to someone.

  • Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness: 35.4% versus 52.9%
  • Having seriously considered attempting suicide: 14.0% versus 25.6%

A sports coach can do more today than teach a sport, considering the amount of time he spends with an athlete.

Even the person who coaches a novice level team spends more time with students than any one teacher. Picture this over a week, month, and season.

What happens in those hundreds of hours across a team in a season—those hundreds of thousands of hours across all teams over a school year? Can coach-student interactions be measured beyond wins and losses? What systems exist to identify outcomes?

The smallest degree of connectedness could change lives. What if any level coach (novice to elite) could take simple steps to increase degrees of connectedness?

We suggest coaches do the following:

  1. Acknowledge the mental health crisis.
  2. Encourage team-building away from the playing field and screens: community service projects, for example.
  3. Have each student write down independent goals and measure progress against these goals. Suggest journal prompts to get them started.
  4. Consult with students on their goals.
  5. Build your winning culture on self-dependence.

Sydney is Stride’s Founder.