The following is a conversation between Amy Mezulis, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at Joon Care and Michael MacKelvie of College Guide Pro. Together, they discuss the teenage mental health crisis and what parents need to know to best support their teen and young adult children.
It's a great question. I think it's probably three things, two of the ones you mentioned and a third variable. So the two things you mentioned are different stressors and that teens might just not be handling these stressors very well. From a mental health perspective any mental health outcome is a balance between stress that you experience and the resources or coping skills that you have. So any person–no matter how high-functioning you are, how many coping skills you have–if we put you under enough stress you will start to crack. So if stress really goes up, it doesn't matter how many coping skills you have, you will at some point start to show signs of depression or anxiety. Also, there are people who have very few coping skills and so a little bit of stress can really tip them over the edge.
For any individual person that balance is a little bit different, but for anybody showing signs of depression, anxiety, or maladaptive responses to stress, what's happened is that for them the balance between the stress they're experiencing and the coping resources that they have has gotten out of whack.
Then you can look at your sort of framework and say that teenagers experience stressors that are different and unique than stressors that my generation or your generation may have experienced. Much of that is because of the awareness of stressors through social media. There are also things you can count more objectively like it is legitimately harder to get into college there are more applicants relative to spots. It's more competitive and so there are factually more stressors that are facing teens.
Also, I do think we have a culture, particularly in the US, of a bit of overprotection of our youth. As a culture, we don’t pay enough attention to building the coping resources in our kids. So when we do protect them from disappointments or failures, when we solve problems for them we remove opportunities for them to develop those coping skills. It doesn't cause a lot of problems when they are children or younger teens, but as the problems get bigger and their coping skills haven't kept pace, then you get that disconnect.
The third thing is we have changed our ability to recognize mental health in a way that is net good. We have less stigma. We have better awareness of what mental health challenges look like. These things can make it easier to identify and label problems that maybe 50 years ago we didn't put words to. That doesn't necessarily mean they didn't exist 50 years ago. It’s more likely we just weren't labeling and calling them depression or anxiety.