Our Silent Crisis: The Childhood Mental Illness Epidemic
By Bradley Conrad, PhD
There is a mental health crisis in the United States. Worse yet, our children are having a mental health crisis. For some, this statement is obvious but for others it may be a bit of a surprise. The jarring reality is that our children are wealthier, have more resources, and are better educated than at any time in human history and yet they are the most anxious, depressed, and suicidal they have ever been (this is particularly prevalent in middle and upper middle class families). Without going into great detail, here are a few facts to illustrate the level of this crisis:
One in five kids (15 million) in the US ages 3-17 suffer from some form of mental illness.
Child anxiety rates are the highest they have been in American history.
Child suicide rates are the highest they have been in American history and they have been rising sharply over the past 10 years.
There have been more school shootings in the last 18 years than there were in all of the 20th century.
If these facts do not leave you deeply concerned, I am here to tell you that you should be, particularly if you are a parent or an educator. Rather than go on sharing disturbing statistics and trends, let’s try to unpack why our kids are so unhappy despite having more material wealth than any generation ever.
Why are Our Kids so Unhappy?
While there is certainly a genetic component to mental illness, that component fails to account for the stark increase in mental health issues in US children. With that said, we will examine three primary causes to the childhood mental health crisis:
A great deal of research has been and is being done in this area and the answer is there are many reasons our kids are unhappy. Social media has been found to be an enormous factor in affecting our kids’ mental health. Beyond feeling bullied on social media, which is often covered in the local and national media, kids feel as though they need to create a “brand” of themselves that they can share with their peers via social media to show themselves in a positive light. Moreover, they are found to have feelings of inadequacy when consuming the “brands” of their peers, which often misleadingly illustrate a better life than the one they are actually living (or at least a less authentic one). Along with that, discourse on social media is impacting our kids, as it tends to be far more biting and harsh than it would be if they were communicating face-to-face. The negative dialogue has an adverse affect on children’s psyches, leaving them angrier, sadder, and more depressed. While kids are often attributed with loving social media, studies reveal that in fact they don’t particularly enjoy it, but rather feel obligated to participate. In short, social media is making kids deeply unhappy.
No Free Time
With the increase in organized activities over the past several decades, young children are engaging in free play far less. In a study conducted by the American Journal of Play found that free play has decreased dramatically since 1955, replaced with increased time in structured environments. What is relevant about this fact is that free play affects social and emotional development of children and when they are not given space to play outside of structure, they are far more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and have difficulty with self-control. As kids who have spent much of their free time in organized activities get older, they tend to continue this trend and find themselves overworked, overwhelmed, and unable to function effectively outside of structure. Moreover, they are not given the opportunity to more fully develop their creativity, build their independence, or develop social and collaborative skills that kids who engage in regular free play display. While there are certainly advantages to organized activities, it is not uncommon for children to find the predominance of their days in structured environments, which is adversely affecting them in some quite serious ways.
Pressure to Succeed
Kids are feeling the pressure to succeed both academically and athletically like never before and this is particularly prevalent in middle and upper middle class families. Possibly as a result of increased college tuition (among other factors), kids in large numbers report a strong pressure from their parents to succeed. This pressure has two primary drawbacks. First, when kids feel excessive pressure to meet the expectations of their parents they either struggle or fail to develop the ability to be intrinsically motivated. While external motivation provided by parent expectations is important and necessary, when parents don’t invite their children’s input and/or teach them how to develop their own goals, the kids do not learn how to be self-motivated and as a result, they do not live their own lives, which often results in feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety.
The second issue with excessive pressure to succeed is that kids experiencing this phenomenon report greater feelings of isolation and emptiness. Following the pattern of what happens when kids do not feel a sense of ownership in goal/expectation setting, when they feel as though they lack control in what happens in their own lives, they tend to recede into themselves, leaving them feeling empty and isolated. Such feelings often lead kids to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
How Do We Fix This?
The reality is that this question is misleading. We can’t necessarily “fix” the problem, but there is one word parents and educators should consider when working with young people: BALANCE.
There is little question that structured sports and activities have many advantages in developing young people, it is also important to give kids free time. For younger children, find ways to get them to play with friends independent of close supervision, whether that be inside or outdoors. It is essential to give them spaces where they can explore, discover, make mistakes, collaborate, disagree, and have fun. Kids learn invaluable skills in those situations. We must seek to find balance between structured activities and free play activities. In older children, we should teach them to plan free time into their schedules and encourage them to interact with friends outside of structured environments while teaching them about responsible freedoms.
Parents and teachers should continue to hold high, reasonable expectations for kids, but they must also be sure to seek input from kids into what their goals are. Kids need to learn from an early age how to set attainable goals and to plan ways in which to achieve them. We also want to create environments where kids feel safe to try things and fail, teaching them how to reflect on failure to help them grow and later succeed. Kids are invariably going to be driven by extrinsic motivators, but in giving them voice during goal setting, we aid ourselves in teaching them how to be intrinsically motivated. Again, balance is key here and it is a sliding scale depending on individual children so there is no magic formula for how to seek the perfect balance.
We also have to help children achieve balance in their use of social media while teaching them how to mediate what is coming at them. It is critical to think long and hard before first allowing young children to acquire social media accounts. Moreover, it is essential, regardless of a child’s age, for parents to monitor social media exchanges of their children without violating a child’s trust. It would be advisable to regularly talk with kids about their social media interactions and to talk to them about the pros and cons of social media. Communication is a critical component throughout all of these areas, but no more so than here.
Finally, schools can and are implementing social emotional learning into their curriculum. The mental health crisis is an "all hands on deck" situation and we need schools to support parents in teaching social and emotional skills to our kids. Fortunately, schools are taking notice. There are now 14 states who have adopted social and emotional learning standards and that number is growing. Work by organizations such as The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is helping educate district personnel, administrators, and teachers about how we can go about attending to social emotional learning. I have been so moved by the importance of schools supporting SEL that in my and my colleagues forthcoming book Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design, we included a chapter on creating lesson plans using an Integrated Social-Emotional Learning (ISEL) model that teachers in any subject area could create and implement. Schools must join us in this fight against this pandemic that is harming our children.
Most every educator and parent want what is best for kids – that is unquestionable. With greater awareness of the factors affecting kids’ mental health and with parents and schools working in tandem, we are all better prepared to help our kids develop healthy senses of self that can ultimately lead to them living much more fulfilled and happier lives.