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60 percent of teens are not thriving: it's time to prioritize teen mental health and well-being

July 02, 2020

Teen_girl_phone_GettyImages_PhilanTopicOf the 25.1 million teens in the United States between the ages of 13 and 18, 60 percent report languishing or only feeling moderately mentally well.

That's fifteen million teens who are not flourishing psychologically, socially, or emotionally. Indeed, the state of teen well-being in America is troubling, and we clearly are not doing enough to support them. Older teens are on the cusp of adulthood, about to enter the workforce, and will soon be asked to help solve the significant challenges we face — and yet we deride and discount them, and too often ignore them when it comes to public policy investments.

This derision is felt unequally. SARS-CoV-2 — a virus that does not, by its nature, discriminate — is impacting young people of color more than others. Meanwhile, recent protests against police brutality have brought tens of thousands of young people into the street, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the virus than those who choose to stay home.

According to a new report, Advancing Adolescent Flourishing: Moving Policy Upstream, teens today face myriad challenges unique to their generation. The report found that in addition to the stress of navigating academic expectations, online sexual harassment and bullying, and the pressures imposed by social media, teens are also concerned about mass shootings, rising suicide rates, the political attacks on immigrants and migrant families, and climate change.

The teen years are a critical developmental period and present an incredible opportunity to shape a young person's life — not to mention the future leaders and citizens of our nation. We all do better when our teens do better.

But even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, almost two in five high school students said they felt so sad at times that they were not able to engage in their usual activities, while one in five admits to being depressed. A survey by Active Minds similarly found that 74 percent of students said they were challenged in maintaining a routine because of COVID.

And yet we continue to shortchange our teens. In 2018, federal investments in children fell to 1.9 percent of GDP, the lowest level in a decade. Healthcare expenditures account for three-fifths of federal spending on children, with teens grouped in with children of all ages. As a result, we do not understand teens' wellness needs as well as we should.

It is time to use our resources to improve teen health outcomes and better support their futures.

In order to foster the flourishing of all teens, we need to promote teen-focused health policies at all levels of government and enact solutions that address existing gaps in every aspect of their lives, from education and digital life to teen welfare and foster care.

For starters, we can:

Provide more resources to parents and families with teens. Teens cost more to raise than younger children — $900 more a year, on average, for teens between the ages of 15 and 17 — but this discrepancy is not reflected in federal tax policy. Today, 40 percent of all teens live in or near poverty. Providing low-income families with teens with supplemental income, food and shelter vouchers, and money for education or extracurricular activities would help bridge gaps and improve the well-being of millions of young people.

Prioritize students' educational well-being. School — with its heavy workloads, poor sleep schedules, and social conflicts, both online and off — is a source of stress for many teens, with unfortunate consequences for their ability to flourish. We believe local and state jurisdictions should shift their focus from academic achievement alone to an integrated focus on teens' social, emotional, and psychological well-being. That would include creating positive high school environments that foster caring and supportive relationships, working with teens and school staff to create opportunities for peer-driven school activities and inclusion in school decision-making, and taking a holistic approach to learning and development.

Protect teens from harmful social media content. Teens' use of digital technology to mediate the world — more than seven hours a day, on average — has raised concerns about the negative impact of such sustained exposure on their well-being. Cyberbullying, unrealistic body expectations due to the proliferation of manipulated Instagram photos, and a culture of online shaming all contribute to lower levels of self-esteem. On the flip side, the digital world supports well-being in different ways, including increased opportunities for social connection and improved delivery of health care. In order to maximize the positive benefits of the digital world, social media platforms — and the influencers and advertisers who profit from them — must be held more accountable for producing and sharing harmful content.

Include teens in policy decision that affect them. For too long, teens have been overlooked when it comes to policy. Government, at all levels, can rectify the situation by working proactively to better serve their needs. A good place to start would be to declare the 2020s as the Decade of Teen Flourishing and invite teens across the country to serve in leadership positions focused on promoting efforts to improve teen outcomes and well-being. Government could also implement "teen impact" reviews of its policies and programs to ensure that every government interaction with a teen advances rather than hinders his or her flourishing. Perhaps most importantly, cultivating closer relationships with teens will provide them with valuable opportunities to bring their concerns to the policy-making table and impact their generational peers for years to come.

Our nation's teens are not a bundle of problems to be solved or risk factors to be addressed. Young people can be an incredible resource for our communities and the nation. Teens are taking up the mantle of social change and working with discipline and passion to create a better future for all of us. Let's give them the respect they deserve and invest in their well-being. Our future depends on it.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Composite_miller_doughertyBenjamin F. Miller is a psychologist and the chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust, a national mental-health foundation. Denise Dougherty is a senior scholar in residence at AcademyHealth and a member of the board of directors for Adolescents and Children Together for Health.

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