Mental Health: Causes of Increased Sadness and Violence in US Teen Girls

U.S. teen girls are experiencing significantly higher levels of sadness, violence, and suicide risk compared to boys.

Recent CDC data shows that in 2021, 57% of high school girls reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 36% in previous years. This is nearly twice as elevated as the 29% of males who reported having those feelings in 2021.

The pandemic, social media, and issues like climate change and social upheaval are some of the key factors that have converged to create this mental health crisis in teen girls. 

Multiple factors affect mental health, and the more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health.

Adults help girls by discussing with them how social media influences their feelings, their self-perception, and even their body image. 

What Are the Causes of Increased Sadness and Violence Among US Teens?

The causes of increased sadness and violence in US teens are categorized into two. Explore the root causes driving this trend to develop effective interventions and support systems for this vulnerable population below:

Causes of Increased Sadness

The causes of increased sadness and violence in US teen girls are attributed to various factors, including sexual violence, depression, academic stress, social stress, family discord, world events, traumatic events, and significant life changes. It is essential to seek help from a healthcare provider if anxiety or depression is interfering with daily life, as untreated mental health disorders worsen over time. Let’s look at some of the common causes, viz:

  • Social Media and Peer Pressure: The pervasive influence of social media platforms has profoundly impacted the emotional well-being of teenage girls. Constant exposure to curated images of idealized beauty, success, and happiness leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Moreover, the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards set by peers online contributes to a sense of alienation and loneliness, exacerbating feelings of sadness and isolation.
  • Academic Pressure and Performance Anxiety: The pursuit of academic excellence has become increasingly demanding for teenage girls, with mounting pressure to excel in school and secure a bright future. As the expectations for academic achievement soar, many girls experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety, fearing failure and disappointing their parents or teachers. The relentless pursuit of perfection takes a toll on their mental health, contributing to feelings of sadness, overwhelm, and burnout.

Causes of Increased Violence

  • Exposure to Violence in Media and Society: Teenage girls are increasingly exposed to violent imagery and content through various media channels, including television, movies, video games, and social media. The normalization of violence in popular culture desensitizes them to its impact and desensitizes them to its consequences, leading to a higher likelihood of aggressive behavior and conflict resolution through violence.
  • Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Many teenage girls have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence. These traumatic events have a profound and lasting impact on their mental and emotional well-being, increasing their vulnerability to violent behavior as a coping mechanism or means of self-protection.

What Are Some Risk Factors for Mental Health Issues in Teen Girls in the US?

According to the Office of Population Affairs, anxiety orders occur in approximately 32% of 13- to 18-year-olds. Some common risk factors for mental health issues in teen girls include:

  1. Exposure to Stress: Frequent or long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
  2. Violence and Abuse: Physical abuse and bullying are common risk factors for mental illness in adolescents. Youth who are victims of abuse and bullying are more likely to experience mental health issues later in life.
  3. Family History of Mental Illness: Genetics play a role in a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness. Those with a history of mental health problems in their family are at an increased risk of mental disorders.
  4. Media Influence and Gender Norms: Media influence and gender norms exacerbate the mental health disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions.
  5. Chronic Disorders: Young people struggle with chronic disorders, whether mental health disorders, physical diseases, or substance use disorders, which increase their risk of developing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
  6. Trauma: Traumas such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing or being the victim of violence increase the risk of mental health issues in adolescents.
  7. Poor Living Conditions or Home Life: Household dysfunction, domestic abuse, parental absence or loss, poverty, and lack of basic necessities at home augment the risk of developing a mental illness in adolescents.
  8. Other Illnesses: Young people with developmental disabilities and chronic medical conditions develop anxiety or depression, and they are also at an elevated risk for developing a substance use problem.
  9. Identity Issues: Adolescents who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation are at a higher risk for anxiety and depression, especially if they don’t have their family’s support or support in the community.
  10. Risk-Taking Behaviors: Many risk-taking behaviors, such as substance use or sexual risk-taking, impact an adolescent’s mental health.

These risk factors, among others, substantially impact the mental health of teen girls and should be carefully considered in efforts to support and promote their well-being.

How Do Schools Support Teen Girls Struggling with Mental Health Issues?

Schools support teen girls afflicted with mental health by implementing the following strategies:

  • Mindfulness programs and stress management techniques
  • Integrating social-emotional learning into the curriculum
  • Providing mental health education and destigmatizing mental health issues
  • Offering student classes in mindfulness, yoga, and other relaxation techniques
  • Training staff on trauma-informed practices and mental health first aid
  • Linking students to mental health services, such as school counselors and community resources
  • Creating safe and supportive environments, both in person and virtually
  • Encouraging positive parenting practices and communication between parents and teachers
  • Addressing bullying and promoting empathy on campus
  • Offering technology-based mental health resources and apps
  • Providing support groups for students with mental health struggles
  • Connecting students to local nonprofit organizations and community services
  • Offering mental health days as an option for students
  • Addressing the needs of students from low-income families and those who transfer schools frequently
  • Encouraging open communication and fostering a sense of belonging among students

Supporting Teen Girls

If you notice increased sadness or violence in the teenage girls around you, offer them support and understanding. Encourage open communication and provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Reach out to mental health professionals or counselors for guidance and resources to address these concerns effectively. By being proactive and supportive, adults help teenage girls navigate through challenging emotions and experiences, ultimately promoting their well-being and resilience.

How do parents initiate conversations about mental health with their teenage daughters?

Parents initiate conversations by creating a safe and non-judgmental space, expressing concern and empathy, actively listening to their daughter’s experiences, asking open-ended questions, and offering support and encouragement to seek help if needed.

Are there specific factors that contribute to the higher rates of sadness and violence seen in teenage girls compared to boys?

Yes, factors such as hormonal changes during puberty, societal pressure to conform to gender norms, exposure to gender-based violence or harassment, and differences in coping mechanisms contribute to the higher rates of sadness and violence among teenage girls.

How do parents differentiate between normal teenage mood swings and signs of a more serious mental health concern?

It’s essential to pay attention to the duration, intensity, and impact of the symptoms. If the changes persist for an extended period, increasingly disrupt daily life, or cause major distress or impairment, it highlights a more serious mental health issue that requires professional attention.

Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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