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The mental health of teen girls and LGBTQ+ teens has worsened since 2011


Today the CDC released new data on the health behaviors and experiences of ninth through 12th graders all across the country over the last decade. And a warning - we're going to be discussing sexual violence and suicide in this story. The new CDC data shows that in 2021, adolescent girls fared worse than boys on all measures that they looked at, including violence and mental health symptoms. And it also shows that teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning continue to face extreme distress and suicidal thoughts and attempts. To tell us more, we're joined now by NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. Hi, Rhitu.


CHANG: OK. So tell us more about what this new report says about what teenage girls are going through.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So I should point out that the data shows that all teens' mental health has worsened compared to a decade ago. But, yes, teen girls are definitely doing far worse not just in terms of the mental health symptoms but also the experience of violence. I spoke with the CDC's Kathleen Ethier, and she talked to me about the connection between sexual violence and depression.

KATHLEEN ETHIER: Of every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one of them - possibly more - have been raped. That is just an overwhelming finding. And so, not surprisingly, we're also seeing that almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year.

CHATTERJEE: And that's the highest level recorded by the CDC in a decade. And the new data also shows that 1 in 3 girls had seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up by 60% over the last decade. And I should point out that teens who identify as LGBQ+ - more than half of them experienced poor mental health recently, and 1 in 5 had actually attempted suicide in the past year.

CHANG: And how much of that trauma that you've described, particularly sexual trauma - how much of that is driving these levels of despair for teenagers now?

CHATTERJEE: So I put that question to Dr. Vera Feuer. She's a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Northwell Health in Long Island, N.Y. And she says a lot of the mental health symptoms have underlying trauma.

VERA FEUER: Most of the kids presenting to psychiatric emergency rooms and a lot of the kids presenting with suicidal thoughts do have a background that includes trauma, sexual victimization as well as bullying, cyberbullying.

CHATTERJEE: But there's a whole host of other factors. So I spoke with Dr. Stephanie Eken, who is at Rogers Behavioral Health in Wisconsin, which has a program specifically for teen girls. And she says one of the factors here is that girls are hitting puberty earlier and earlier.

STEPHANIE EKEN: When we look at research studies, girls, when they start to hit puberty, start to have increasing rates of depression and anxiety. So there are hormonal factors that we think could play a role.

CHATTERJEE: And then she says, of course, social media has completely transformed how teens socialize, right? And most of them are socializing online, not in person, which Eken says has led to a dramatic rise in loneliness, even before the pandemic, actually. And we know that loneliness is really closely tied to suicide.

CHANG: OK. So it sounds like a combination of biological and social changes that's at play here. Are there any good, reliable ways to help support and protect kids going through this?

CHATTERJEE: So the good news here, Ailsa, is that studies show that social connection - strong social connection, especially connectedness at school with their peers, other caring adults at schools, in communities, in their family - has a huge protective factor, especially against depression and suicide. And the new CDC report points out that schools need to be supported in helping protect kids better.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And if you or anyone you know is experiencing an emotional crisis, you can call or text 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.