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Homelanders: In Mental Distress but Well-Behaved
According to a new CDC survey, high schoolers’ mental health has worsened over the last decade. But at the same time, they are engaging in less risky behavior.
The CDC just released the results from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Media headlines about the poll have primarily focused on the rising mental anguish of high school girls. But the report also found that teens are engaging in less risky behavior. So let’s explore the full results.
Over the last decade, self-reported surveys show that emotional distress among high school girls has significantly worsened. 57% have experienced feelings of “sadness or hopelessness” in the previous year. That’s a rise of +21 percentage points from 2011. Moreover, 30% have seriously considered suicide. That’s a rise of +11 percentage points.
Boys were both significantly less likely to report these symptoms and to have shown much lower growth in such symptoms over the same period. 29% reported feeling “hopeless,” up +8 percentage points from 2011. And 14% had considered suicide, up +1 percentage point.
We have written several NewsWires on rising indicators of teen depression. (See “New Public Health Advisory on Teen Mental Health” and “Soaring Youth Demand for Mental Health Care.”) Rising rates of depression may be responsible for the increase in suicides. In 2021, the suicide rate among those ages 15-24 increased by +8% YoY. It has now hit a record high of 15.30 per 100K. (For a discussion on possible drivers, see “Suicides Are on the Rise Again.”)
But it’s not all bad news. Over the last ten years, teens have engaged in significantly less risky behavior. Marijuana use has fallen -7 percentage points to 16%. The share who have had sex has fallen -15 percentage points to 30%. And alcohol use has fallen -16 percentage points to 23%.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of teens continue to avoid opioids. The share of high schoolers who have abused prescription opioids has fallen from 14% in 2017, when the CDC first asked the question, to 12% today. This is remarkable given how sharply and relentlessly opioid overdoses have risen among older Americans. (See “Fentanyl Epidemic Accelerates.”)
The widespread decline in risk-taking behaviors continues a trend that began with Millennial youth in the 1990s. What’s distinctive about Homelanders are their rising rates of emotional distress. While Millennials also trended towards less risky behavior as teens, they weren’t as unhappy.
The “emotionally distressed, but better-behaved” characterization is the opposite of what we saw in the 1970s and 1980s: Teenage Xers often felt individually empowered but were also behaviorally out of control–think Ferris Bueller or Dazed and Confused. And this shift is evident in parental concerns. 40 years ago, parents worried about their children becoming pregnant or getting kidnapped. Now they rank their kid’s mental health as their top concern.