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EDITORIAL: Teens' rising depression, anxiety call for action

Columbian - 4/9/2019

April 09-- Apr. 9--The numbers are disturbing, reflective of the pressures faced by today's teenagers.

According to the most recent Healthy Youth Survey in Clark County, instances of depression and anxiety have risen sharply among teens over the past decade. More than 20 percent of respondents in the 10th and 12th grades reported considering suicide in the previous year; 16 percent of high school seniors reported actually making a suicide plan.

Those statistics are echoed throughout the country. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, rates of depression among youth ages 14 to 17 increased more than 60 percent from 2009 to 2017. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California, told Time magazine: "I think this is quite a wake-up call. These findings are coming together with other kinds of evidence that show we're not supporting our adolescents in developmentally appropriate ways."

As with any societal trend, various factors are affecting the mental health of today's teenagers. But the current generation faces a significant new influence. "We can't prove for sure what the causes are," said Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. "But there was one change that impacted the lives of young people more than older people, and that was the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting and gaming."

Smartphones undoubtedly have altered the experiences of young people when compared with previous generations. And while it is essential to examine the reasons for increased depression, it is more important to figure out how to address it. Writing for The Washington Post, Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and therapist, provides some recommendations for parents:

--Keep open communication.

--Prioritize self-directed play. Professor and author Peter Gray says: "Children are almost like prisoners today. They're constantly being monitored, their sense of control over their lives has declined, and that sets them up for depression and anxiety."

--Identify helpers: "To normalize help-seeking behavior, prompt kids to silently name the adult they'd approach in a crisis."

--Sweat the small stuff and the big stuff: "A child's concern may seem overblown, but take it seriously anyway."

--Bolster kids' sense of belonging.

--Encourage students to care for one another.

These duties increasingly rest on the shoulders of teachers and school administrators, but a teenager's stability begins in the home. Parents must strive to maintain connections and also should monitor a teen's screen time. In the Clark County Healthy Youth Survey, 62 percent of eighth-graders reported having three or more hours of screen time a day. Meanwhile, high percentages of students at each grade level reported not receiving the recommended amounts of exercise.

While smartphones have altered the landscape for youth, tobacco, drug and alcohol use has been an issue for generations. Recent surveys indicate that drug and alcohol use has declined over the past decade, but the advent of vaping has led to a resurgence of nicotine use. Substance use can be both a cause and a symptom of mental health issues for both teenagers and adults and is an important piece of the discussion.

Most important, however, is the realization that teenagers' lives are much different than they used to be. That calls for increased attention from adults.


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