Teen mental health is in a sad state

The COVID pandemic was rough on everybody. Fear and sorrow were ubiquitous, and not just among high school girls.

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Students walk outside Roberto Clemente Community Academy Jan. 2022 in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

Students walk outside Roberto Clemente Community Academy Jan. 2022 in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

To hear people tell it, the kids are definitely not all right. According to The Washington Post, there’s “a crisis in American girlhood.” To Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “the inexorable rise of teen anxiety ought to be a national crisis.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, quoting a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, puts it this way: “American teenagers, and especially American teenage girls, are increasingly miserable: more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts and act on them, more likely to experience depression, more likely to feel beset by ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.”’

Or as The Who put it all the way back in 1971:

“Don’t cry

Don’t raise your eye

It’s only teenage wasteland!”

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Pete Townshend, who wrote the song, claimed it referenced “the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid and 20 people had brain damage.”

People were always misunderstanding Townshend that way, possibly because The Who’s performances so often concluded with guitar smashing and the occasional explosion. Also, drugs, lots and lots of drugs. But then Townshend, a certifiable genius, has always been a complicated figure.

Nevertheless, a teenage wasteland it is, according to the CDC. America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma, one official said. According to a survey taken in 2021, just as schools were reopening after being shut down during the COVID pandemic, close to one in three high school girls said they had considered suicide — a 60% increase over the previous decade.

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“Nearly 15% had been forced to have sex” — that is, raped. And approximately 6 out of 10 girls described themselves as “so persistently sad or hopeless they stopped regular activities.”

Two semi-heretical thoughts: First, adolescents in general, and adolescent girls in particular, are prone to self-dramatization; also, moralists of every description have been lamenting the incipient decay of youth since Socrates.

On the topic of English rock stars, I recall lazing away a Sunday afternoon with my college roommate in 1964 watching PBS pundit David Susskind warn that an even more alarming scourge than the Beatles was about to invade America. Susskind played a track from the Rolling Stones’ forthcoming album, a blues cover called “King Bee,” filled with sly sexual innuendo.

We ran out to order it and played the album until it was translucent. Some months later, we took dates to the Stones’ first American show at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan. The stage was mobbed by shrieking teenage girls. Our dates stayed put. Keith Richards later spoke of being scared half to death.

The rest is history. One of my favorite movies during the last decade was “Ole, Ole, Ole!” — part concert film, part travelogue of the Stones’ 2016 tour of Latin America, culminating in a historic performance in Havana — where their music had long been banned and hundreds of thousands of Cuban fans sang along in English.

That said, you couldn’t have gotten me to Woodstock at gunpoint. Also, I found the group hysteria of those teenage girls back in the ‘60s both mystifying and alarming. Still do.

So pardon me if I’m a mite skeptical about the CDC study and all it portends. Rather less than meets the eye, I suspect. For one thing, as Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” told the Post, “it’s important to note that the CDC data was collected in the fall of 2021, a time when many teens were anxious about returning to in-person school and wearing masks.”

The COVID pandemic was rough on everybody. Fear and sorrow were ubiquitous, and not just among high school girls. Damour also pointed out that surveys say “we’re raising the best-behaved generation of teenagers on record ... They drive with seat belts, they smoke less, they have less sex, they wear helmets. They do all these things that we did not do.”

But I do think stay-at-home isolation was harder on girls, because girls need other girls; boys can make do with things. And I’m inclined to heed public scolds like NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who blames the baleful influence of social media — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. — and cellphone addiction.

Quit scrolling and shut the fool thing off. You’ll be glad you did.

That said, studies documenting psychological harm from online activity are hard to find. I’m surprised that pornography gets so little mention, if only for its tendency to make boys treat young girls like online trollops. But of the complaints girls told Post reporters about most often — “impossible beauty standards, online hate, academic pressure, economic difficulties, self-doubt and sexual violence” — most strike me as permanent aspects of the human condition.

Bear up, girls. You’ll be women soon enough.

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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