Susan Estrich: It is depressing to be a teenage girl
From the commentary: Our kids are depressed and worse; anxious, angry and desperate. Is anyone really surprised?
It has never been harder to be a teenage girl. The latest study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is terrifying. Twice as many girls as boys felt persistent sadness in the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey given to 17,000 high school students, the highest rate in a decade.
One in 3 girls reported seriously considering attempting suicide.
One in 5 lesbian, gay and bisexual teens reported actually attempting suicide in the year before the survey. One in 5, and those are actual attempts within the year.
Among girls, 15% of girls said they had been forced to have sex at some point in their lives. Among gay, lesbian or bisexual adolescents, 1 in 5 reported being forced to have nonconsensual sex.
"When we're looking at experiences of violence, girls are experiencing almost every type of violence more than boys," according to Dr. Kathleen Ethier of the CDC. "We need to talk about what's happening with teenage boys that might be leading them to perpetrate sexual violence."
The experts point out that the mental health crisis among teenagers was brewing before the pandemic and has been made worse by the social isolation the pandemic has brought. Building healthy relationships, a primary antidote to sadness and desperation, has never been more difficult. Other researchers point to the advent of smartphones and the dominance of social media, which has brought with it cyberbullying and revenge porn and the rest.
But to those of us who follow the public discourse in this country, it is hard to view these numbers and not wonder as well about the impact of the vicious, heated and ugly culture wars on young people.
It's noteworthy that when this survey was conducted, less than two years ago, they did not ask teens if they identified as transgender, so there are no figures on depression and suicide for these most vulnerable teens.
A 2019 Canadian study found transgender teens were seven times as likely to consider suicide than other teens, although the sample size was small.
The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention, released statewide data in December showing alarmingly high rates of suicide attempts and depression, especially in states where the anti-trans agenda is being aggressively pursued.
Among trans and nonbinary youth, the number who seriously considered suicide exceeded 50% in Texas (56%); in Florida (54%); in New York (50%); in Pennsylvania (54%); in Illinois (51%); in Ohio (54%); in Georgia (55%); in North Carolina (53%); and in Michigan (52%). Between 16-20% of trans and nonbinary youth reported actually attempting suicide across these states.
Anxiety and depression do not stop at state lines. California, which has passed legislation to protect trans youth, is only a little better, by the numbers. Among LGBTQ+ youths, 44% considered suicide, and 14% attempted suicide, the survey found; for trans and nonbinary respondents, the findings were worse, with 54% considering and 19% attempting suicide. And 70% of LGBTQ+ youth in the state said they had experienced discrimination, even if it is unlawful.
Our kids are depressed and worse; anxious, angry and desperate. Is anyone really surprised? Can we really look in the mirror, any of us, and not take some responsibility, for the decibel level and the vitriol, if nothing else? If adults set the tone, what should we expect from our kids? We can do better. If not for our sake, then for theirs.
"I think there's really no question what this data is telling us," Ethier, who is the head of the CDC's adolescent and school health program, told reporters. "Young people are telling us that they are in crisis."
So are we.
This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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