According to many health professionals, the United States is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis for which we are not prepared.
Rates of mental illness in the United States have steadily risen in the last decade, with 30.6% of young adults aged 18-25 years having a mental illness. Despite a staggering number of people in crisis, just 46% of the 52.9 million adults with a mental illness received mental health services in the past year.
Lack of access to services is leaving millions of Americans isolated and waiting for support. While they wait, mental health rarely improves and services become overwhelmed. Suicide has now become the second-leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 14 and 25 to 34. For those aged 15-24, it is the third leading cause of death, surpassed only by homicide.
So, how did the U.S. get here, and what can be done to deal with this crisis?
A Decade of Contributing Factors
In 1990, suicide was the 7th most common cause of death among those ages 5 to 14, but now it is the second. The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, has now declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. In a statement, they declared that the rapidly worsening crisis is inextricably linked to the stress caused by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice. While current statistics show an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020, years of isolation, uncertainty, and grief have undoubtedly worsened a crisis that was already emerging.
The World Health Organization has declared that there is a need to transform attitudes, actions, and approaches to mental health, its determinants, and mental health care. They highlight childhood sexual abuse and bullying victimization as major causes of depression. Additionally, social and economic inequalities, public health emergencies, war, and the climate crisis are among the global, structural threats to mental health.
It is clear that factors contributing to the crisis encompass both global and local issues, as international social, economic, and health crises drive up rates of mental health and gaps in mental health and social care fail to provide support to those in need.
The Role of Social Media
The growing worldwide mental health crisis among young people is increasingly linked to interaction with social media. Research from the University of Essex and UCL reported that the more time children aged 10 spent on their phones, the lower their level of well-being from ages 10 to 15.
Research shows that teenagers are also getting less sleep and exercise than ever before. This, coupled with a decrease in time spent outside or with friends, raises concerns about young people’s opportunities to develop healthy boundaries and social competencies, explore their identity, and make meaningful connections with peers. These are all incredibly important for healthy development. The combined result for some adolescents includes anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, self-harm, and even suicide.
The act of sharing personal information about yourself on social media activates the same part of the brain that is triggered when we consume an addictive substance, eat food, or have sex. This produces the chemical dopamine, which plays an essential role in motivating behavior. Humans have survived by being social creatures who have been rewarded by dopamine for social interactions. While this has been an evolutionary advantage, coupled with constant access to the instant dopamine release provided by social media, it is increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
The issues caused by social media use and COVID-19 are enough to create a mental health crisis on their own, but alongside the lack of adequate support for those struggling, the scope of the issue has become staggering. There simply are not enough resources to deal with the problem we currently face.
A study has revealed that 74% of Americans do not believe mental health services are accessible for everyone, and about half think that options are limited. The price of care is one of the largest barriers to support. A recent study has revealed that forty-two percent of Americans stated that cost and poor insurance coverage were the top barriers to accessing mental health care. One in four reported needing to choose between receiving mental health treatment and paying for daily necessities.
Lack of awareness and understanding about how to find and access care are also barriers. While the majority of Americans attempt to seek treatment, around 30% reported wanting to but not seeking treatment for themselves or loved ones. The reasons for this included not knowing where to go if they needed this service. Additionally, people of color and religious or ethnic minorities in America access treatment at lower rates and mistrust the medical system, in part due to the historical oppression and human right abuses that still remain for many Black Americans in particular. Higher rates of drug abuse and poverty – at least in part influenced by systemic racism – have contributed to compounded trauma and depression for many Black Americans. Yet, these issues also act as barriers to adequate mental health treatment. Overall, 21% of people in America have wanted to see a mental health professional but were unable to for reasons outside of their control. The prevalence of mental illness was highest among adults identifying with two or more races.
It is clear that in order to address America’s teen mental health crisis, better awareness, support, and information for parents and accessible mental health support are essential. Additionally, tailored approaches to reach communities who experience barriers to treatment, yet who also have higher rates of mental illness, must be part of the response. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the prevalence of mental illness is highest in those reporting two or more races, so mental health support needs to have an anti-discriminatory, culturally-sensitive approach with practitioners from a diverse set of backgrounds.
The CDC is working to ensure that parents with teenagers get the support they need. Parents can find resources here. If you are worried about a young person’s mental health, reach out for support as soon as possible.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, the 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in suicidal or mental health-related crisis. Calling or texting 988 will connect you with mental health professionals from the Lifeline network.
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Mental illness. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Suicide. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide#part_256
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 AACAP-Cha Declaration of a national emergency in child and Adolescent Mental Health. AAP. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-development/aap-aacap-cha-declaration-of-a-national-emergency-in-child-and-adolescent-mental-health/
 World Health Organization. (n.d.). Who highlights urgent need to transform mental health and Mental Health Care. World Health Organization. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2022-who-highlights-urgent-need-to-transform-mental-health-and-mental-health-care
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 Study reveals lack of access as root cause for mental health crisis in America. National Council for Mental Wellbeing. (2022, November 17). Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/news/lack-of-access-root-cause-mental-health-crisis-in-america/