Extremely High Level of Distress Among US Youth is Deeply Worrying

USA Youth Students

The latest official statistics of ‘Youth Risk Behavior Survey’ (YRBS), USA, 2011-2021 released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), USA, have revealed truly alarming levels of distress among US youth.

From a distance youth of other countries perceive life of youth in USA to be a life of joy and fun in a prosperous land free of various social inhibitions, and crave for a similar life. The results of this survey may be an eye opener for them too and highlight the need for a different path.

As the USA is one of the highest GDP countries, the prevalence, persistence and increase of such high levels of distress among US youth calls for serious analysis to find real causes as well as solutions so that US youth can have a happier and more meaningful life. (All data in this article is for the USA only and is from the latest YRBS)

The YRBS statistics tell us that in year 2021 42% of US high school students “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. When this figure was reported at 28% in 2011 this was considered to be quite high and hence brought forth calls for several remedial actions. Despite these, the number has increased persistently and steadily during the decade—30% in 2013 and 2015, 31% in 2017, 37% in 2019 and 42% in 2021. In the case of female students, this percentage is even higher—in 2021 as many as 57% of female high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Further, in 2021, the YRBS tells us, 29% of high school students experienced poor mental health. In the case of female students, 41% experienced poor mental health.

What is even more alarming in the YRBS data is that in 2021, as many as 22% high school students in the USA “seriously considered attempting suicide”. Here also we see an overall increasing trend from 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2021. In the case of female students this number was as high as 30% in year 2021. In other words, almost one-third of female high students in the USA were so distressed as to “seriously consider attempting suicide” during this year.

In fact the YRBS statistics tell us that as many as 18% of high school students in the USA had actually “made a suicide plan” in 2021. This also had an overall increasing trend from 13% in 2011 to 18% in 2021. In the case of female students this percentage was again higher at 24 in year 2021.

Most sadly, the YRBS survey tells us that as many as 10% of high school students in the USA actually attempted suicide in 2021. This means that one out of 10 USA high school students attempted suicide in 2021. This percentage increased from 8 in 2011 to 10 in 2021. The number of female students who attempted suicide in 2021 was again higher at 13%.

Another aspect of distress suffered more by female students related to sexual violence. 18% of female students experienced sexual violence by anyone during the past one year.

These high levels of distress are extremely sad and have increased despite remedial actions proposed by eminent experts in the past. Instead of merely repeating such advice, there is clearly need for deeper introspection and more sincere efforts to find real causes and solutions. More than individual consultations, efforts to find the illness of entire society are needed.  While eminent experts are deeply concerned about this issue, they may be missing some wider important issues due to examining issues more closely in a narrower framework.

In particular it is important to examine the links of the increasing internal distress of USA society with the increasing aggression of the USA at international level. As this writer has emphasized several times, such links need to be recognized and will help the peace movement within the USA to mobilize people to create a society which is at peace with itself and with the entire world, devoted more to reducing its own distress as a higher priority.

Another question that arises relates to the higher distress suffered by female students (compared to male students) according to almost all criteria. If the USA is supposed to be a society based on gender justice, then why is this happening? This should be seen in the context of high levels of violence and distress suffered by women and female children in other contexts also in the USA, for which a lot of additional data is available. However confining ourselves only to YRBS data for the time being, isn’t it alarming that as many as 57% of female high school students experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 41% experience poor mental health, 18% experience sexual violence in a year, 30%  seriously consider attempting suicide in a year, 24% make a suicide plan in a year and 13% actually attempt suicide in a year, all this at levels much higher than male students.

The USA has frequently criticized gender injustice in other countries but should it not also look inwards to ask why girls in the USA are so distressed despite the outer appearance of a very free and liberated society. In this context also there is a clear need to explore linkages between internal distress and aggression on the one hand and massive distress caused by aggression in other countries on the other hand.

Once these wider links are recognized, then these can pave the way for creating a US society which is at peace with itself as well as with the rest of the world. This should be one of the highest priorities for our deeply troubled world.

Other than YRBS data, there have been several other indications of the deep distress within US society. This is evident from the call given twice in recent times by the top child health organizations in the country for declaring a mental health emergency for children, given the scale of these problems. If this won’t wake up a society to the need for wider introspection, what else will?

Note of caution—For anyone having depressive thoughts helplines and other help are available.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.

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