Youth in crisis are at risk for a host of negative outcomes. Psychologists are working to develop programs that support them, including providing opportunities for self-sufficiency and addressing the trauma they experience in conflict and crisis areas.
Years before the Covid-19 pandemic, kids and teens were showing up in emergency rooms with mental health crises. Depression and suicide rates were on the rise.
After creating a show set in the present (The Simpsons) and another set in the future (Futurama), cartoonist Matt Groening took us back to medieval fantasy in 2018 with Disenchantment, which follows a rebellious princess, her booze-fueled best friend, and their gleefully sarcastic demon. It just returned for its fourth season with 10 episodes on Netflix.
Like its forebears, Disenchantment is a black comedy. Minor characters get maimed or killed for comic effect, and in general Groening’s cartoon world has more of a dark sense of humor than one might expect from the creator of Futurama and The Simpsons.
Disenchantment is a fantasy show, but it’s also a critique of modernity. According to the social philosopher Max Horkheimer, scientific rationality squelches spiritual feeling and leaves it behind in the form of materialism and barbarism. This process is known as desacralization. In other words, the structures that channeled religious belief into rituals that promoted collective identity are eroded and stripped of their power, leaving the beliefs themselves weakened and disenchanted.
A worldwide crisis of violence afflicts youth, as both victims and perpetrators. Homicide accounts for a large share of the global burden, but violence also includes non-fatal injuries and psychological abuse.
Most risk factors appear during childhood and adolescence, and many are related to one another. For example, children who start using drugs are at higher risk of violence later in life, as are adolescents who commit general offenses such as robbery and theft.
Research has shown that some of these risks are inherited, but others result from social learning and a combination of biological processes. For instance, youths who grow up in deteriorating neighborhoods may develop mental illness or addictions, which can lead to violent behavior. Successful programs for reducing violence involve education and community engagement. They often include mental-health treatment, parenting training and job skills development. They must be tailored to local contexts and subjected to rigorous outcome evaluation. In addition, they must be widely disseminated and expanded.
In many countries, poverty is a major problem for young people. Many live on the fringes of society, excluded from decision-making because policies and social norms fail to take their interests into account. They are vulnerable to economic crises and a variety of environmental hazards, including those caused by climate change (see our Climate Change feature).
Many are unable to find jobs or even earn enough for basic needs. They cannot afford recreational activities, a day trip with friends or a birthday party; and they may not be able to pay for medication in case of illness.
Youth poverty can have severe consequences, especially for those who become parents. Often, they are unable to support their children and are forced back into poverty. They may also be at risk of HIV infection, which has a particular impact on children. Poverty can also have a negative impact on mental health: a study of high school students found that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those who identify as LGBTQ.
It may take time to arrive at a consensus explanation for the teen mental health crisis, but while intellectuals squabble over rival social theories, government should increase access to mental-health care for youth. While medication treatment is crucial, so too are psychosocial treatments such as family therapy and social support groups that help kids cope with anxiety, depression and other disorders.
Psychologist-led research has shown that the key to overcoming mental illness is having a supportive home life and meaningful relationships with peers and adults. Unfortunately, many teens lack those supports.
Years before the COVID-19 pandemic, teen mental health problems were spiking in emergency rooms and rising in prevalence among all kids, but especially among those who are most vulnerable to despair, such as those from racial and ethnic minorities, urban areas or low-income families. And even when teens are getting the care they need, they often have nowhere to go. This is a national crisis that needs to be addressed at the state and federal levels.