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Teenage girls endure the worst mental health crisis

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The teen mental health crisis is getting worse by almost every measure. But it’s affecting girls nearly twice as often as boys, according to new federal data.

The big picture: A marked gender gap in those experiencing suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, and persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness indicate a need for more personalized interventions and support.

  • But schools – the de facto first responders on the front lines – may not be equipped to provide it.

Drive the news: A CDC report released Monday found that adolescent girls are in the midst of the worst decline in mental health in a decade, with nearly a third reporting that they have seriously considered taking their own lives.

  • 1 in 5 girls said they had recently experienced sexual assault in 2021, a 20% increase from 2017, when the CDC began tracking the statistic.
  • Teenage girls were nearly four times more likely than boys to say they were ever coerced into sex.

Threat Level: Trauma experienced in childhood can fuel substance use, affect brain development and lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Where is it: As parents and legislators increasingly recognize the responsibility schools have to address mental health issues, districts are struggling to maintain counseling, screenings, teletherapy and other services that have been supported by federal relief dollars COVID.

  • “We have to acknowledge this or we will lose an entire generation,” said Tara Wallace, a childhood trauma therapist in Topeka, Kansas, a state ranked second to last in the US for youth mental health by Mental Health America.

Flashback: The mental health crisis among adolescent girls precedes COVID, lockdowns and other stressors during the pandemic.

  • A 2019 Pew Research study found that teenage girls in the United States were three times more likely than boys their own age to suffer from depression.
  • Before COVID, 1 in 5 children had a mental health disorder but only a fifth received treatment, according to the CDC.

Yes but: There is no single factor leading to this decline in mental health in adolescent girls, said Debra Houry, chief medical officer of the CDC.

  • The pandemic, social media, school stressors, online misinformation, and social conflict can all play a role.
  • Previous studies have suggested that girls tend to dwell on their negative emotions as a coping mechanism and are more likely than boys to be perfectionists to the point of burnout and intense self-criticism.

What are they saying: Schools that intervene early can improve outcomes, but the level of services available depends on state investment, said Angela Kimball, senior vice president of mental health care. advocacy group Inseparable.

  • These interventions include teaching coping skills, connecting families to resources, training teachers on how to understand and identify mental health and addiction, and having school counselors or psychologists on site, said Laura Gray, a child psychologist at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington.
  • Medicaid’s low reimbursement rates are another barrier, Wallace told Axios.
  • “Many people in private practice are no longer accepting [Medicaid patients] because they can’t afford it,” Wallace said. “They want to help families. They want to help the children, but they can’t afford to live.”

The bottom line: Ensuring that the youth mental health crisis doesn’t get worse will depend on intervention efforts targeting groups facing serious risk and a sustained push to ensure schools can deliver.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Ayuda also available in Spanish.

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