By Jacky Chen, h.s. senior, New York
On a hot, cloudless July afternoon in 2017, a 13-year-old Chinese American boy ran away from home and jumped in front of an oncoming subway train at the East Broadway station in New York City. He was pronounced dead at the scene, leaving his elder brother and mother devastated.
To many, this is just another suicide incident on the news, but not for me because he and I were close friends in elementary school. I later learned that tense familial relationships and unbearable expectations were the underlying reasons behind his decision to cut his life short. Even after more than four years, I often find myself coming back to this incident, wondering if there was anything that could’ve been done to prevent it.
Despite a growing number of mental health awareness organizations, poor mental health rates are rising. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2019, over 36% of high school students in America experienced feelings of depression and hopelessness. More alarmingly, the attempted suicide rate increased by 41% compared to a decade prior, reaching 8.9%. Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this rate has only continued to climb in the past few months. A CDC report shows that, in 2020, there was a 24% increase in mental health ER visits for children ages 5 through 11, and more than a 30% increase for those between 12 and 17 years old.
Poor mental health plagues today’s youth, and one of the biggest barriers to improving it is teenagers’ reluctance to admit their struggles to family members, friends, and teachers out of embarrassment. While nonprofit organizations and schools must continue to provide their services and resources, parents must take on a more active role in their child’s mental wellness to address this pressing issue and the social stigma that surrounds it.
With significant worsening in mental health rates in the past decade, we need to address an important question. What might be some of the underlying causes? Firstly, in an increasingly digital world, teenagers are exposed to technology and social media more frequently and at a younger age. According to a report from Common Sense Media, kids between 8-12 years old average nearly six hours of screen time a day and up to well over nine hours for teens. This constant exposure establishes a social norm that adolescents are constantly trying to meet, a stressor that induces low self-esteem and feelings of depression and loneliness. The topic of pop culture also has social implications. A study conducted at the Pew Research Center states that around three-in-ten teens feel pressured to look good (29%) and to fit in socially (28%). Twenty-one percent of teens list extracurricular activities and being good at sports as stressors.
Perhaps more significant is academic stress. Sixty-one percent of teens cite obtaining good grades as their top stressor, and those who attend high-achieving, competitive high schools are the most susceptible. As a student at a high-achieving high school, I can attest to this. The competitive peer culture at school takes a toll on not just my mental well-being, but on that of my peers, too.
Being aware of a child’s mental well-being is a parent’s responsibility. There are many ways parents can get involved. It’s important to first establish a respectful and trusting line of communication where teenagers can receive the support they need. Multiple individuals need to be identified as a source of support in case one overlooks signs of depression.
There are also numerous online resources available at any moment like Find Your Words, which both parents and adolescents can use. From de-stressing activities to coping advice, these resources provide great guidance. Parents should educate their children about the suicide prevention hotline (800-273-8255) and encourage them to frequently take mental health self-evaluations. From local school councils to nonprofit organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, fighting mental health is a collective effort. It’s through collaboration and confrontation that we can change the stigma surrounding adolescent mental health, and it’s time for parents to take the lead.
By Jacky Chen, h.s. senior, New York.