Teen Mental Health: Light at the End of the Tunnel

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Teen Mental Health

Light at the End of the Tunnel

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It’s the first day of school, but for 13-year-old Kari it’s a day to dread. As she fills her backpack, she thinks about that group of girls who tormented her last year. They hang out in a part of school she cannot avoid, and she prays that none of them will be in her class.

Kari quickly downs her glass of orange juice before telling her mother goodbye. Her mother only grunts in reply. She’s an alcoholic, and Kari knows her drinking is getting worse since her parents divorced two years earlier.

Her route to the bus stop takes her several hundred yards down a four-lane highway with heavy traffic. She sees an 18-wheeler speeding along at more than 65 miles per hour. Kari knows of other kids who committed suicide, and she thinks again, as she has many times before, how quick it would be if she just stepped in front of one of those trucks.

Kari is not living. She is only existing, every day a living hell. But tragically, her situation is repeated, with many variations, in the lives of millions. It’s important that we assess some of the challenges facing young people today—and turn in hope to the means of escaping the darkness.

Under assault from many directions

A supreme irony of modern life is that so many teens live lives of material abundance but are drowning in mental and emotional chaos. They suffer from a litany of problems: clinical depression, broken homes, bullying, peer pressure, poor self-image. And today they do battle with a host of new problems almost unknown to their grandparents’ generation: drug use, often crushing academic pressure and what is today termed “gender dysphoria.”

Adolescence should be a time when young people develop social and other skills based on sound mental health. It should be a time of exploration and discovery, of becoming aware of the world, of learning how to deal with problems and coping with life in a positive way. Teens should have the benefit of sound, loving home environments where they can go to parents and others for help with the stresses of transitioning from children to adults.

Yet for many, life is a daily struggle against loneliness, depression and misery. Home life, which should be a source of love and support, is instead filled with strife. School only makes the problems worse when teachers indoctrinate students with false values and teach young people to question even their biological sexual identity.

These challenges are confronting many nations around the world. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has for more than a decade tracked the country’s growing mental health crisis among teens, with disturbing findings. Overwhelming numbers of young people experience feelings of hopelessness and depression. Girls fare worse than boys, with 57 percent of teenage girls experiencing these feelings. About 30 percent seriously consider suicide, and tragically, many carry through on these feelings. And similar trends are found in other Western nations.

It’s worse for teens confused about gender identity. In many school districts children are told to question whether the sex they were born as is the right one for them. For many sensitive or easily swayed children, this becomes a source of tremendous mental turmoil. Those who begin to consider themselves a boy in a girl’s body, or vice versa, face even higher rates of mental illness that can drive them to the edge emotionally, even to suicide.

Glued to social media

Like most teens she knows, Kari is addicted to her smartphone, staring at its tiny screen almost constantly. It’s her most valuable possession, giving her contact—and context—to the world around her. She has few friends, but Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are her constant companions. More than anything else, these form Kari’s self-image, and she doesn’t like what they tell her—that she doesn’t measure up to those girls she sees online. She knows she’s a little overweight. She thinks she’s not as pretty. As she flicks from one image to another, her sense of depression only deepens.

Several years ago, the respected Pew Research Center started conducting yearly studies on teens and social media. Its 2023 survey of more than 1,450 teens aged 13 to 17 found that 95 percent of teenagers own or have ready access to a smartphone, and 46 percent report they use them constantly. About 65 percent use Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube or TikTok every day, with 1 in 5 telling researchers they use these platforms “almost constantly” (“Teens, Social Media and Technology 2023,” PewResearch.org, Dec. 11, 2023).

Although the debate over social media and its effects on teens will likely rage for years, the overwhelming evidence of the harm of social media addiction cannot be ignored. Dozens of studies in recent years have documented this harm:

“There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents” (U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, reported in The New York Times, May 23, 2023).

“Since social media took off as a popular phenomenon in the early 2000s, the rate of adolescent depression has significantly spiked. Between 2005 and 2017, depression among young people reportedly went up 52%” (“Is Social Media Causing Psychological Harm to Youth and Young Adults?” UCLA Health, Jan. 18, 2023).

“Social Media is designed to hook our brains, and teens are especially susceptible to its addictiveness” (Nancy DeAngelis, a Pennsylvania hospital behavioral health director, quoted in “The Addictiveness of Social Media: How Teens Get Hooked,” Jefferson Health, June 2, 2022).

That last point is especially telling. In a truly diabolical marriage of marketing and psychology, the creators of these platforms have discovered how to design algorithms that hook the still-developing brains of young teens. Quoting Dr. DeAngelis again: “Social media platforms drive surges of dopamine to the brain to keep consumers coming back over and over again. The shares, likes and comments on these platforms trigger the brain’s reward center, resulting in a high similar to the one people feel when gambling or using drugs. The overuse of social media can actually rewire a child or teen’s brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification, leading to obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviors.”

A 2022 study by the Mayo Clinic found that, while social media can have some beneficial effects such as providing companionship and entertainment, the damaging effects outweigh those benefits. The study pointed out that social media distracts teens, disrupts their sleep, and exposes them to bullying, rumors, peer pressure and unrealistic views of other people’s lives. Its conclusions linked high social media use with high levels of anxiety and depression.

There is also increased danger of exposure to sexually oriented communication and material, predatory behavior and other negative or corrupting influences.

From the depths of despair to hope through God and His Word

Kari’s thoughts of suicide are shared by millions of teens today, with suicide growing among U.S. teens at a far faster rate than among any other age group. A 2022 study by the North Carolina Dept. of Health Services revealed the shocking truth: Among U.S. children and young people aged 10 to 17, suicide rates more than doubled from 2007 to 2018. Those in the 10-14 range showed the greatest increase, tripling from 0.9 to 2.9 per 100,000 population. This does not include figures since the Covid lockdowns.

Clearly, the mental health of America’s young people is under assault in ways the nation has never experienced—and the same is true for many other countries. Yet there are ways that teens and their parents can fight back, seeking help and learning to take control of their own mental health.

Struggling teens like Kari need to know that there is hope—that there are people who care. And they need to actually be shown kindness and listened to. Most importantly, they need to come to see that there is a God who loves them and has a plan for them and all humanity. People are lost without a sense of purpose and reason for existing.

God’s Word, the Bible, is a source of great encouragement, showing that God is full of compassion and abundant in mercy, giving help and comfort, granting forgiveness, healing and redemption (Psalm 86:16-17; Matthew 14:14; James 5:11).

Looking to God first is a big step in finding the way out of darkness and trouble (Matthew 6:33-34). As Jesus Christ said in Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The apostle Peter affirmed: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God . . . casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Parents in trying to help their children cope need to start here as well. God has given them the responsibility to guide and intervene in their children’s lives to protect them and help them navigate through our Satan-influenced society (see Genesis 18:19; Deuteronomy 6:6-9; Ephesians 6:4). And for those who turn to Him, He will direct them in that (compare Jeremiah 29:13).

Developing a strong, secure environment

Effort to rescue our young people may require, in the words of Winston Churchill near the beginning of World War II, “many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.” However, we have help to fight these battles—help from a very powerful Source. Our Creator wants us to be happy in right living and sound thinking. He wants us to have strong, healthy families, where children can grow from childhood to young adulthood in loving and nurturing environments.

Strong, secure home environments depend on parents being as concerned about their children’s mental, emotional and spiritual health as they are about their physical health. Such parents will strive to set good examples themselves and lead their homes well.

Notice the apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy about the qualifications for church elders: “A bishop [overseer] must be blameless, temperate, sober-minded . . . gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous, one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence” (1 Timothy 3:2-4). All parents should aspire to such loving leadership. A sound home environment, where children know they are loved and can always come to parents (or grandparents) with any problems they face, is the starting point.

Our teens and preteens need to see that God is first in our lives. Just as we find purpose and protection in His law, our teens and preteens should find protection in their homes. Just as we can talk to our Heavenly Father about our problems, our young people should be able to talk to their physical parents about the problems they face.

When our young people face online or actual bullying, when they feel targeted by online predators, when they feel inadequate due to images they see on social media (selectively presented and often altered), they need to feel comfortable talking to Dad and Mom about these concerns.

Other caring people can also be of great help. Those of us who attend a local church with young people should try to get to know them and reach out to them, especially those we learn are suffering from depression, bipolar disorders and loneliness. It may take special effort reaching out, as they may tend to be unresponsive, but sometimes just a short conversation to show that someone takes an interest can make a world of difference.

Paul exhorts us, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). The admonition is not to be prying busybodies, as we are told not to be (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 1 Timothy 5:13), but to take a sincere interest in others’ well-being to comfort and edify them (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Take control of your teen’s social media usage

In much of the Western world, parents have largely abdicated their responsibility to monitor children’s social media usage. It’s time to take control, and it can mean the difference between a socially healthy teen and one headed down a slippery slope to depression, becoming the target of sexual predators, or worse.

This also means facing the fact that some of our teenage or preteen children may be addicted to social media. In that case, what are we as parents willing to do about it?

For many parents, taking control can be a daunting challenge. We’re probably aware of accounts of some teens throwing violent tantrums at the very suggestion that their smartphone usage be curtailed. Telling them to avoid Snapchat or TikTok will send some teens into screaming fury.

Again, there can be a real addiction here. Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, explained several years ago how it and other social media platforms are deliberately designed to be addictive and steal users’ time:

“The thought process that went into the building of these processes, Facebook being the first of them, was all about ‘How do we consume as much of your time and attention as possible?’ And that means we have to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever . . . It’s a social validation feedback loop . . . because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors . . . understood this consciously. And we did it anyway” (“Sean Parker Unloads on Facebook: ‘God Only Knows What It Is Doing to Our Children’s Brains,’” Axios.com, Nov. 9, 2017).

The apostle Paul realized the danger of becoming dominated by certain behaviors. He knew that just because an activity might of itself be acceptable, it was wrong to let it gain control over him (1 Corinthians 6:12).

Today’s teens have long since moved beyond Facebook to other platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Is it unrealistic to think these might now be even more addictive, given what their creators have learned from almost two decades of Facebook? Remember, these companies make their billions by adding millions more addicted users for the benefit of advertisers.

Many of us do not relish the idea of a knock-down, drag-out fight with our teens over how much they use their smartphones or tablets, but it’s a battle worth fighting. Here are a few simple suggestions to get started.

Set limits on how much time each day your teens or preteens can spend on social media.

Make some family time, for example mealtimes, off limits for smartphone usage.

Impress on teenage drivers the dangers of texting while driving.

Designate one evening a week as family time devoted to activities that do not include smartphone usage.

Make sure your teens receive positive feedback in their life outside of social media.

Seek competent help

It’s tough for parents or teens to fight these battles alone. However, in light of the growing severity of the teen mental health crisis, many groups have sprung up to help parents and teens cope with these issues. Throughout many nations, trained mental health counselors are available, many of which offer services free of charge or at very low cost. Christian-based counseling is best, promoting Christian-living principles.

There may even be some cases of clinical depression that require some sort of nutritional or medical treatment. Be sure to consult your or your child’s doctor about these matters—and don’t be afraid to do your own research and get a second opinion.

Of course, the greatest help remains with God and His Word. We have many resources providing guidance in that regard. Do a search at ucg.org for coping, discouragement, hope, bullying, social media, suicide, suffering or any number of such topics and you’ll find articles and sermons that address them.

Our young people are a precious heritage, but they are under assault today as never before in history. It’s time we tackled head-on the growing problem of teen depression, anxiety, suicide and other miseries that come from strained mental health. Let’s face the problem and take positive action.



Sources of Professional Help

Following are some sources of professional counseling in the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Those in other parts of the world can also find help at some of these, though local help is available in many countries. Many communities also have local resources for mental health counseling.

United States

Focus on the Family, focusonthefamily.com/get-help or 800-232-6459, offers trained counselors who can help with mental health issues from a Christian-oriented perspective.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America, findyourtherapist.adaa.com, a directory of licensed mental health professionals, also offering other resources.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 988lifeline.org, a 24/7 confidential support service to anyone suffering from severe emotional distress or in a suicidal crisis. Call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

Social Media Safety Teams. For more than 10 years the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (above) has been connecting people suffering from trauma on social media to counseling teams. Available for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok.


Focus on the Family Canada, focusonthefamily.ca/get-help or 1 800 661 9800, offers Christian-oriented professional counselors.

The Lifeline Canada Foundation offers resources for teens and parents alike (thelifeline-canada.ca/teens-and-youth/).

CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) has branches across Canada and offers tips on how to talk to teens about mental health (cmha.ca/brochure/talking-to-teens-about-mental-health).

Youth Mental Health Canada, ymhc.ngo, offers low-cost tools for wellness.

Kids Help Phone has e–mental health services available 24/7 (kidshelpphone.ca/urgent-help).

United Kingdom

CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), part of the NHS for young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties, offers local help around the U.K. (see nhs.uk/mental-health/children-and-young-adults/mental-health-support/mental-health-services and young-minds.org.uk/young-person/your-guide-to-support/guide-to-camhs).

Australia / New Zealand

Lifeline, lifeline.org.au or tel. 13 11 14, is a national charity providing 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Kids Helpline, kidshelpline.com.au or tel. 1800 55 1800, offers free, private counseling services for children and young adults ages 5-25. Carers and parents can also reach out here.

KidsHealth, kidshealth.org.nz/helplines-mental-health-support-services or tel 0800 611 116, provides info-mation on organizations children, parents and others in need can contact.