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The Teen Suicide Crisis Is A System-Wide Failure

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Young people and their families don’t need statistics to tell them that they’re in the grips of a profound mental health crisis. For the rest of us, the numbers are staggering. A CDC survey released last spring found that in 2021, 44.2% of teenagers had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and almost 20% – 1 in 5 American teenagers – considered suicide. According to their numbers, in any given high school classroom, 2-3 students will have attempted suicide and several more will have considered it. 

While some amount of tumult and personal struggle is to be expected as any young person grows up, this is not normal. It’s the consequence of a truly horrifying amount of global instability and crisis bearing down upon teens, and the systematic undermining of resources that could be used to help.

Teens Face Increasingly Unsafe World

The COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of quarantine was a distressing and even traumatic experience for many young people. Being stuck at home indefinitely, often in high-stress situations for families whose livelihoods were jeopardized, meant more kids and teens faced emotional and physical abuse. They saw their parents in distress, and being out of school meant less connection to adults or classmates. These experiences have had lasting impacts on youth mental health, long after lockdowns have ended. When your education, your upbringing, and all the significant activity of your life is put on pause, then ordered to restart – where do you find the motivation and meaning to be able to jump back into the way things were?

Add to this the terrifying reality of climate change, war, and persistent unjustifiable inequality which have profoundly affected young people’s ability to really imagine a future. A recent survey of 16-25 year olds found that nearly 60% reported feeling “extremely or very” worried about climate change, to say nothing of the direct effects of experiencing a natural disaster firsthand. Outrage at the ongoing atrocity in Palestine has led to walkouts at high schools and colleges across the country, citing their devastation at seeing kids their age having their homes and schools bombed in Gaza.

Similarly, the divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been more open and evident. While rich influencers flaunt their countless luxuries, most teenagers today can look forward to a soul-crushing 9-to-5 that will still leave them struggling to afford rent and healthcare, likely with a mountain of student debt to go along with it.

Add to all this the backdrop of school shootings, and it’s not hard to see why teens are in crisis. In 2018, a survey found over half of teens were worried that a shooting could happen at their school. This year there have already been over 230 mass shootings in the US, creating a social backdrop of violence that negatively impacts not just children’s immediate feelings of safety but their overall emotional development. 

Certain groups with additional risk factors experience even higher rates of severe depression and suicidality, including girls, LBGTQ, and Black and indigenous teens. Members of these groups are more likely to experience violence or discrimination based on their identity, and LGBTQ, Black, and indigenous teens are more likely to witness violence in their communities or carry guns for personal safety, all risk factors associated with higher rates of suicide.

Declining Support

The compounding impact of these stressors mean many young people experience levels of emotional distress they don’t know how to cope with. This can lead to desperate attempts for relief in the form of addictive and self-harming behaviors, which can be anything from drug and alcohol use to disordered eating to excessive social media use. These behaviors are both symptoms and causes of depression and anxiety, a vicious cycle that can be impossible to escape from without support. 

It’s horrible that young people feel as if nobody is there for them – even worse is that, generally speaking, nobody is. In 2022, 42 states reported severe shortages of child and adolescent psychiatrists. Thanks to funding cuts, the number of residential treatment facilities for children fell 30% nationwide from 2012 to 2020. In 2021, less than half of adolescents who needed treatment for major depressive disorder got it. Mental health care is prohibitively expensive, and Black and brown families,  who are less likely to have insurance, are the least likely to have access to mental healthcare. 

As a result, more and more children and teens are ending up in the emergency room with mental health emergencies. In fact, this problem has reached such extreme proportions that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the Emergency Nurses Association just released a joint statement urgently appealing for a surge of resources to relieve the crisis of ERs overwhelmed with youth mental health patients. 

What To Do?

We don’t need to wait for more research to come up with clever new solutions – we need money for a healthcare system that would actually serve working and young people now. Money for more child psychologists and therapists, for treatment facilities, for counselors and comprehensive social-emotional curriculum in public schools, for community centers with a full range of social services and recreational programs for teens, including programs for LGBTQ teens, teenage girls, and young people of color who have experienced violence or discrimination or struggle with self-esteem related to identity.

All of these things could easily be funded tomorrow with an emergency national teen suicide prevention bill. Medicare for All, which has mass public support across the political spectrum, could immediately eliminate cost as an obstacle for accessing care. It’s also entirely possible to begin to seriously address longer-term factors like climate change and gun violence by funding green energy and jobs programs and restricting access to semi-automatic weapons – a majority of people in the US already want the government to do more on these issues. 

So why haven’t these things happened? Because working class families currently have no political representation. Big corporations raked in historic profits and the richest 1% increased their wealth by billions during the pandemic at the expense of the health of working class and young people. The amount of money needed to fully fund public education, Medicare for All, and a broad range of social programs for working families is not actually that much in comparison to the vast reserves of wealth the ultra-rich are hoarding or that is being spent on war. 

Unfortunately, neither major party has any interest in taxing the rich (see On Strike’s episode “WTF Happened to Medicare for All?” for a deeper dive into how healthcare reform has been intentionally thwarted by the Democratic Party establishment). That’s why we urgently need a new party for working class and young people, based on the strength of mass movements and organizations of workers, students, retirees – the vast majority of us who urgently need and want something we can genuinely be hopeful for.

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