The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published the concerning results of a survey on youth mental health. The results, published this month, show that in 2021, 57% of high school girls reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year, a rate that is almost twice as high as the 29% of males who reported having those feelings in 2021.
The detailed report highlights the alarming disparity between girls’ and boys’ experiences. The results echo previous studies and reports that have indicated that this trend began before the isolation and increased stress of the pandemic, which many mental health experts say negatively impacted the state of mental health in America, particularly for young people.
So why is there a gender disparity in mental health concerns in young people, and how do we address this deeply concerning and growing divide?
Mental Health in America
It is becoming evident that the United States is facing a mental health crisis which affects people of all genders, races, socio-economic groups, and ages. For a more detailed look at the scale of this crisis, explore some of our recent blogs.
Rates of mental illness in the United States have steadily risen in the last decade. 30.6% of young adults aged 18-25 years currently have a mental illness.2 There is a wide range of factors driving these increasing rates of mental health, substance use disorder, and suicide. Social media, political, racial, and economic tension, and a lack of mental health practitioners are all significant contributors to the issue.
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. Although this varies by state, there is approximately one therapist for every 3,000 people. Over 115 million people in America live in areas where there is fewer than one mental health professional per 30,000 people, and more than half of U.S. counties lack a single psychiatrist.
There is a chronic and growing shortage of mental health workers, with millions unable to access the care they need, which exacerbates mental health concerns.
A Look at the Data
The report captures a detailed image of the state of mental health among American teenagers by looking at the link between mental health and consensual sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use, suicidality, self-harm, bullying, violence, and sexual violence. In order to address one of the challenges young people face, we must consider that there are interconnected and overlapping issues. For example, young people who feel hopeless about their future are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for contracting STIs, HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy1. Similarly, the effects of STDs and unintended pregnancy can put people at risk for mental health issues and increased stress.
The increase in suicidal ideation is perhaps one of the most concerning findings of the report because it has increased by almost 60 percent increase since 2011. Almost 1 in 3 high school girls seriously contemplated suicide in 20211.
Causes of Increasing Concerns for Teenage Girls
Rates of several types of violence have also increased, particularly for young women and girls. The report describes teenage girls as being, “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma.”1 Almost 20 percent of female high school students stated they experienced sexual violence in the past year, with 14 percent stating they had been physically forced to have sex in their lifetime. This is a rise from the 2019 data, when the CDC reports this figure was 11 percent.
A lack of safety in school is also seen as a contributing factor. In 2021, 10% of high school girls did not attend school because they felt unsafe, either on their way to or from school or at school, at least once during the past month. Safety concerns disproportionately affected teenage girls, with female students being more likely than male students to miss school as a result of feeling unsafe.1
Bullying is another factor that contributed to the increase in mental health concerns. Once again, it affects teenage girls disproportionately. Female students experienced both online and in-school bullying at a higher rate than male students, with virtual bullying affecting female students at almost twice the rate of male students.1
These are deeply concerning statistics, and violence against adolescent girls is now at the highest level ever reported. Cybersexual violence has also increased since more young people are spending extended amounts of time online.
Female Substance Use Disorder
Nearly 30% of female students surveyed drank alcohol, and nearly 20% used marijuana at the time of the survey. Despite the percentage of high school students overall who currently used marijuana decreasing overall from 2011 to 2021, the percentage of female students who currently used marijuana did not change. The same pattern is recorded in the students who had misused prescription opioids from 2017 to 2021.1 In other words, teenage boys are abusing marijuana and prescription opioids less frequently, while female use remains the same.
Based on the report, similar concerning trends of self-destructive, risky behavior in teenaged girls emerge. Female students were more likely than male students to have ever used select illicit drugs, electronic cigarettes, and alcohol.1
This kind of substance use is both a sign and a cause of mental health issues in teenagers that needs to be addressed. Many young people engage in prescription drug abuse or alcohol abuse as a form of self-medicating anxiety, depression, stress, or other mental health struggles. This corresponds to the finding that over 40 percent of high school students were so sad or hopeless they were unable to engage in usual activities such as schoolwork or sports for at least two weeks out of the year.1
Responding to the Crisis
As a parent, caregiver, teacher, or loved one of a teenage girl will understand, these statistics are particularly concerning. Protecting female high school students and keeping them safe can be incredibly difficult. With the virtual world making it more difficult to monitor young people’s engagement with certain activities, there can be a sense that things are changing too quickly to keep up with. Maintaining open and non-judgmental communication with teens can help them feel understood and make it easier for them to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed. Conversations about safe sex, consent, and legal rights with both male and female high school students are incredibly important at school and at home.
Practicing healthy online habits, such as taking regular breaks, maintaining certain boundaries, and reporting or not engaging in online bullying, are ways of mitigating mental health concerns connected with social media use.
Finally, seeking support for mental health concerns as soon as possible is always recommended. Waiting lists can be long, and symptoms of mental illness – particularly if suicidal ideation is present – rarely resolve on their own. Mental health issues can be serious, and you don’t need to deal with them alone.
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 crises. Calling or texting 988 will connect you with mental health professionals from the Lifeline network.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, February 13). YRBSS Data Summary & Trends. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/yrbs_data_summary_and_trends.htm
 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
 Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAS). KFF. (2022, October 21). Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/mental-health-care-health-professional-shortage-areas-hpsas/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22%3A%22Location%22%2C%22sort%22%3A%22asc%22%7D
 Behavioral Health Workforce. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://behavioralhealthworkforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Y3-FA2-P2-Psych-Sub_Full-Report-FINAL2.19.2019.pdf