The isolation of the pandemic certainly took its toll on adolescents, with mental health struggles spiking among that age group in the last two years.

But we can’t forget that isolation of a different kind was already affecting teens and pre-teens well before anyone heard of COVID-19.

Depression and anxiety, which have been on the rise among adolescents since before some of today’s high-schoolers were born, can make one feel like they are all alone and that no one would understand what they are going through.

Kids need to know that those things are simply not true. They need to know that whatever anxiety and inadequacy they are feeling, others are too, and that among their family and community there are people who can help make it better.

Clearly, they are not alone. While drinking, smoking and teenage pregnancy were the top health threats for adolescents 30 years ago, all those activities have fallen sharply for today’s teens.

Instead, they’ve been replaced by depression, self-harm and suicide, all of which were intensified by COVID but have been on the rise since around 2007.


Throw in the stigma surrounding mental health, and the severe shortage of treatment options for kids, and you have a crisis. For example, suicide rates for people age 10-24, which had been stable for years, jumped nearly 60% from 2007-2019, the New York Times reported in April.

Maine has not been spared. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids age 10-17 in our state, and the number of dead has been going up every year. It’s no longer rare for hospitals to treat young people for suicide attempts, the Press Herald reported last year.

It’s clear that while many kids today are doing very well, a good portion is really struggling, and struggling in a way that’s different than before. Why that’s happening isn’t so clear.

Social media is a popular target, but all the research shows that the effect of social media on adolescents is not clear at all.

Kids are getting less sleep, less exercise, and less time in-person with peers and others than previous generations, at a time in their development when they are exploring who they are and what they want out of life. That could be a factor, or just more symptoms.

Whatever the cause, everyone needs to be aware that the kids around them may be struggling in silence. Those kids need to know it’s OK to have those feelings — and that they can talk about their mental health just as they would their physical health.


Maine schools in recent years have received more resources to create programming around normalizing mental health struggles. Programs like Sources of Strength, from the Maine Suicide Prevention Program and NAMI Maine, which uses peer leaders and adult advisors to make others feel comfortable coming forward, can create a feeling of safety in schools around the issue of mental health.

We are also encouraged by the work of Remi Young, a 17-year-old at Berwick Academy who as started the Fight Your Fearz movement, in which he talks to classes about his own experiences struggling with mental health in the hope that others feel comfortable doing the same.

The rise in depression and anxiety. The increase in self-harm and suicide. All the ER visits from teenaged kids and younger.

Through these developments, America’s kids are telling us they feel lonely and isolated, sad and sometimes hopeless.

It’s up to the rest of us to show that we are ready to listen.



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