March 6, 2023

Welcome to our new “Director’s Cut” blog series. Each month, we’ll be sitting down with UCF RESTORES Executive Director Deborah Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, to get her take on popular topics, current events and other developments shaping the national discourse around mental health and wellness.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unearthed some devastating findings: teen girls across the U.S. are experiencing record-high levels of sadness, violence and suicidality, and these levels worsen significantly across marginalized groups. Read on to explore Dr. Beidel’s insights on why this rise may be occurring and how systems and individuals can work together to reintroduce hope where it may be lost.

This CDC study reports that more than half of teen girls in the U.S. reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless” in 2021 – a rate double that of boys and the highest level reported over the last 10 years – and that 1 in 3 “seriously considered” attempting suicide. How can we better understand this decade-long rise? And what could contribute to the gender gap in these findings?

Let’s start with the gender gap as that is easier to explain.  From an early age, boys are socialized to hide their emotions. We all know the phrases: “Big boys don’t cry,” or “Take it like a man.”  This means that boys are more likely to hide their negative emotions, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t feel negative emotions. When we measure fear or anxiety objectively – monitoring heart rate or sweating – boys and girls show equal levels of fear. So, the gender gap may be attributed to boys feeling more anxiety than they care to express or admit.

Another difference between boys and girls is the emphasis on physical appearance, which girls are much more likely (unfortunately) to use as a measure of their self-worth or self-esteem. Although the fashion industry has made some changes, how one looks is still overly emphasized in girls and, unfortunately, it is becoming an issue for even younger girls.

I don’t believe that there is one specific factor that explains this rise in persistent sadness and hopelessness. But there are several factors that probably play a role. Where boys are more likely to display physical aggression against a classmate, girls are more likely to engage in relational aggression – think about the movie, “Mean Girls.” Relational aggression attacks someone’s relationships and social standing. With the continuous expansion of social media, there are increasing opportunities to taunt or hurt someone through postings and engagement on various platforms. And, during the pandemic, social media use increased as other opportunities for socialization were curtailed.

When you combine the pandemic, the increasing impact of social media, the use of relational aggression, and the promotion of unachievable images of what is supposed to be the “standard” of beauty, this rise in sadness and hopelessness is understandable.

The CDC also notes that half of teens identifying as LGBTQ+ suffered poor mental health in 2021, and 1 in 5 report attempting suicide within that year. Sadness, depression and violence also worsened among racial and ethnic groups. How can we better support and facilitate suicide prevention among marginalized youth?

It may seem trite to say that we have to “stand with them,” but that is where it starts.  Sexual orientation and gender identity are not “lifestyle choices”; these factors are biologically based. One quote from Dr. Renee Richards, courtesy of The New York Times, always captures this issue for me: “If there were a drug, some voodoo, any kind of mind-altering magic remedy to keep the man intact, that would have been preferable, but there wasn’t. The pressure to change into a woman was so strong that if I had not been able to do it, I might have been a suicide.”

We need to correct those who think it is a fad or that it can be “prayed away.” And this goes for any marginalized group. We simply cannot stand by.

Social support is the most powerful weapon that any of us has to prevent suicidal behavior. When a person knows that someone cares – when someone makes that social connection – the desire to complete suicide is reduced. Reaching out to someone costs us nothing but it can be the lifeline someone needs when they’re in distress. We may never know the impact of that text or phone call – so reach out often.

The CDC report points to the role a school – including teachers, mentors and staff – can play in improving mental health among its student base. With so much of teens’ lives spent in school, what are some evidence-based steps schools can take to help struggling students?

First, schools provide structure and a sense of familiarity, which is important when children and teens are struggling. Have a regular routine can decrease anxiety as one knows what to expect and when. And for many children and teens who come from food-insecure families, school provides essential nutritional needs, which can also lessen distress – they know that they will not be hungry, at least for a little while.

Second, school personnel can provide psychological safety. The presence of school personnel – who are often seen as trusted adults – fosters “social connectedness,” that critical variable that can lessen emotional distress and prevent suicidal behaviors. It is vitally important to ensure school personnel know how to identify children and teens displaying emotional distress and know how to reach out.

Third, schools can serve as a vehicle for students to connect with each other. When schools offer after-school and extracurricular activities, they provide a safe environment for students to establish and maintain friendships with other students who share the same interests.

Interacting over social media or text messaging is a poor substitute for human connections and, for most children, school provides the foundation for not simply education, but also for important social and emotional relationships.

How can others in the community – outside of the school system and immediate family – help address this crisis?

It’s important to remember that we don’t always know who might be feeling despair or discouragement. So, not knowing what others are currently experiencing, each of us can make a difference by remembering the words “You Matter” and living that creed with everyone you meet. The “You Matter Compassion Project” – which was started to bring hope to people questioning their worth – has this concept at the core of its mission.

Living this creed can be as simple as making eye contact and saying “hello” to a teenager (or anyone!) you see when walking your dog. Complimenting a child on something that they built or drew will communicate that an adult saw them, recognized their talent, and took the time to tell them. It may sound small, but I promise it works. No one wants to feel invisible or useless, and no one wears a sign telling others that they feel this way. By making these simple connections, we just might be helping someone who is suffering remember that indeed, they matter.