*** Originally appeared in Sober World. By Louise Stanger Ed.D., LCSW, CDWF, CIP and Roger Porter
When Milly’s father called, he discovered Milly’s dark secret. He tried to be a compassionate and attentive father as she broke down in tears and explained what was going on. Devastated over her mother’s alcoholism and her inability to get help, Milly sunk into a deep depression. Her weight swung like a pendulum as she gained 45 pounds in a short time and began to fall behind in school. This was odd because Milly was an avid tennis player, and an all-around good kid who gave it all up to hide in her room.
To cope with these growing pressures, Milly tried cutting to ease the pain. This was hard for her dad to hear. He wondered where he went wrong – how could his little girl want to bring harm to herself like that? He decided to seek counseling, as well as psychiatric help for Milly and their family, however, nothing seemed to work.
Then Milly got the news she had to start a new high school in the fall. Milly gave it a valiant try, but everything fell apart. Over the holidays, she started cutting again and her father found her in the midst of it one night. Overwhelmed and concerned for his daughter’s safety, Milly’s father took her to a treatment facility where she found the help she needed to find her center. Today, Milly took a semester off of traditional school to live at home with her dad and spend 5 days a week in a healing outpatient therapeutic environment.
Clark, on the other hand, a graduating senior, was feisty, always getting into trouble. He punched walls in his bedroom, filled the house with the smell of marijuana, threatened his mother and screamed at his father. Clark was an adopted child from a young woman who was addicted to drugs. As a result, Clark was a fetal alcohol syndrome baby, a disorder that can cause brain damage and other growth problems.
Despite these issues, he was sharp as a tack and adept at sports. However, he was a bit shorter than the rest of the boys at school, a chip on his shoulder that channeled his anger and aggression. The boys made fun of his size and bullied him. He struggled to make good decisions and tried his hardest to be the guy folks would look up to.
Instead, he became a dealer his sophomore year and gained a reputation for being a tough guy. When his parents called me for help, they were fractured, unable to get through to Clark because he had closed himself off entirely to his parents, teachers and anyone who wanted to help. I was able to help them get Clark into a treatment center where Clark is slowly learning new ways of living as he takes a year off to prepare for college in the future.
These vignettes, adapted from professional experiences I’ve had as a skilled interventionist and clinician (names are changed to uphold confidentiality), illustrate how teenagers these days are wrestling with thorny issues unique to their generation. Generation Z, those born 1996 to 2014, are true digital natives, having not known a world without a smartphone or computer screen. As such, they’re experts at processing information fast, have a short attention span, are defined by being visual learners, the internet is their best friend and marijuana, for the most part, has always been legal in their lifetime.
And it’s not just the typical teen Identity confusion angst – sex, gender identity, birth control, pregnancy, drinking, peer pressure and fitting in – that roils the burgeoning adolescent mind. Now, research reports that there are a rising number of adolescents experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression, self-harm and vaping, amongst other mental health disorders. In fact, a 2019 Pew research study – Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety & Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers – found that anxiety and depression now tops the list of teen problems.
Alarmingly, “concerns about mental health cuts across gender, racial and socio-economic lines, with roughly equal shares of teens across demographic groups saying it is a significant issue in their community,” the study found. 70% of students polled for the survey reported anxiety and depression were a major problem, with bullying and drug addiction in the 50% range, while teen pregnancy and gangs were in the 30% tier at the bottom of the list of problems.
And it’s not just perceptions driving these upward trends. Data collected from the last couple of years point to rising numbers of teens experiencing these issues. A 2016 Timecover story – Teen Depression & Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright by Susanna Schrobsdorff – reported that 3 million teenagers experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, a jump of 37% from 2005 to 2014, and in the past two years, 6.3 million teenagers have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In total, 20% of all American adolescents struggle with depression at one point by the time they reach adulthood.
What’s pushing these numbers? Most signs point to social media and the glut of an increasingly digital world. “Teens who use social media sites for two hours or more per day are significantly more likely to suffer from poor mental health, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts,” according to a 2013 study from Ottawa Public Health, the city of Ottawa’s agency for health information, programs and services – reported in Huff Post.
As a result of rising anxiety and depression in teenhood, this particular generation is wrestling with some serious issues that may threaten their physical health. Self-harm – specifically cutting – has made a resurgence recently. According to a February 2019 guide for parents struggling with a child who self-harms in Psych Central, “20-25% of adolescent girls and 10-14% of adolescent boys report self-injuring… [which] largely begins in preteen and adolescent years,” writes Jim Holsombach.
“Over the last 10 years, self-injury continues to increase in prevalence… with preteens and young adolescent self-injury increasing more than any other age group.” Holsomback also reports that bullying and sexual trauma exceeds 200% of drivers for self-injury and LGBTQ+ teens are twice as likely to inflict self-harm.
Susanna Schrobsdorff, author of Time Magazine’s article on teen anxiety and depression, tapped into the core of why young adults turn to cutting and other forms of self-injury. “It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds,” Faith-Ann Bishop, an eighth-grader living in Bangor, Maine, told Schrobsdorff in an interview for the article. “For a while I didn’t want to stop because it was my only coping mechanism.”
Another growing all-I-want-is-to-fit-in-and-be-cool trend that teens use as a coping mechanism may be vaping. Although researchers can’t claim causality, the Surgeon General calling teen vaping an “epidemic” is cause for alarm because the nicotine, marijuana and other harmful chemicals in the vapor cartridges can lead to serious health issues for growing teens. “An estimated 3.6 million US teens are now using e-cigarettes, representing one in 5 high school students and one in 20 middle schoolers,” reports a February 2019 article in the Daily Mail.
The health risks are evident. “School and health officials say several things are clear… Nicotine is highly addictive, the pods in vaping devices have a higher concentration of nicotine than do individual cigarettes, and a growing body of research indicates that vaping is leading more adolescents to try cigarettes,” writes Kate Zernike for The New York Times.
Vaporized marijuana is a whole other beast for the developing teen brain. “Damage to brain function from the drug can be worse during adolescence,” states Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. “Marijuana use has been linked to depression and memory problems. Once marijuana is introduced, you’re altering the brain forever.”
Although Generation Z is saddled with tough issues like anxiety and depression, self-harm and vaping, Parents are the strongest defense to work through them. The best thing parents can do to help their teenage son or daughter is to listen. A compassionate heart allows the teenager to open up and talk through their troubles and pressures from friends and society. Here are a few other helpful tips:
• Set family dinners together where everyone can interact
• Take part in school activities your teen is involved in
• Put away digital devices and limit time spent on them, especially when they are doing homework
• Forge alliances with other parents with teenage kids and talk to them about the common issues at their schools and in their communities
Remember what it was like when you were growing up. Adolescence is a time of confusion, a place where bodies change and identities are tried on like Halloween costumes. Experimentation with gender and sexuality, mind-altering substances and alcohol, sex and friendships are common for the growing individual. SAT scores, college and fitting in puts undue pressure on whole families. Though the challenges are real, this is the time to be present in your teenager’s life, to help them find their footing as they discover who they are and live that truth into adulthood.