What Distressed US Children Are Saying to Their Country

Mental Health Depression

Perhaps the single most distressing indicator of the social crisis within the USA is that in this richest and most resourceful country 10 per cent of the high school students attempt suicide in a single year. This, together with the fact that 42% of them have persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness (57% in the case of female students) as also that top medical professional organizations have called for a national medical emergency to be declared in the context of child/adolescent/youth mental health should lead to a very sincere and urgent search for reform based on proper identification of causes.

Several explanations have been offered by several experts and studies that make important points which, however, are only partial explanations and hence do not provide the holistic understanding needed for effective remedial actions.

Before coming to more detailed data with sources regarding this crisis, kindly let me give my humble understanding of this highly distressing situation. These innocent children with their extreme distress are telling their country—something is very seriously wrong in society which needs to be faced sincerely and truthfully with a sense of the greatest urgency, and corrected.

Now for the various details and data.

According to the ‘Youth Risk Behavior Survey’ (YRBS), USA, 2011-2021 released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), USA, 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.

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%.

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 with a holistic understanding of the situation.  While eminent experts are deeply concerned about this issue, they may be missing some wider important issues due to examining issues in a narrower framework and focusing more on the area of their own expertise.

Some of the studies have focused on the instability created by social media and constant interactions on mobiles. Some mention the increasing exposure of children to various toxicities in various chemicals and high technology products, even in food, medicinal products and products in immediate environment. Some studies mention family disintegration and denial of proper parental care in a society where, to start with, nearly 40% of children are born to unmarried women and reported levels of domestic violence are very high. Some mention the very high incidence of child abuse, including sexual abuse, with almost half the children affected by some form of abuse, and several studies pointing to long-lasting impacts of abuse and betrayal of trust and love felt by children as the vast majority of abuse is committed by those whom they trust and love.

A lot of such research also raises the wider question of what is seriously wrong in the entire society which need to be faced sincerely. What has gone wrong with social relationships including close and intimate ones?

Some studies also link higher mental health problems, among adults as well as children, to high levels of inequalities and it is well-known that income and wealth inequalities in the USA are very high. These studies point to the wider adverse impact of this on social relationships. Many children grow up in situations of economic stress and social discrimination even in a land of plenty.

What has been less studied relates to 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.

Once a country is highly aggressive towards other people to the extent of killing millions of them in the quest for dominance and further enrichment, then such a country loses its moral and ethical compass. Aggression outside is necessarily accompanied by internal aggression in various ways, even in daily life in close relationships.

The external aggression and forever wars are sought to be justified by presenting these as actions against terror and actions for protecting humanity. Once such glaring deception is used to explain the most prominent issues, deception enters the national discourse at too many levels, and a pall of deception hangs over the country despite the apparent existence of many freedoms.  

Hence the widespread distress among children , as well distress and stress suffered at several other levels by US society should be seen not in a narrow context but in the wider context of widespread changes of make the USA a land of peace, stability, caring, compassion and justice. Once the wider links of child distress, distress of women, distress of disadvantaged sections of society and social distress at various levels to the policies of aggression and injustice are recognized, then this can pave the way for creating a US society which is at peace with itself as well as with the rest of the world.

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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