Our Teens are Suffering

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D.
July 10, 2023 / 3 mins read

Sadness among teens had been increasing even before COVID, and the years of isolation have further hastened the trend. Data from the CDC and elsewhere have shown that one in three teen girls and 22% of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously contemplated or attempted suicide in 2021.

In an extensive survey carried out by the CDC among the nation’s high school students, more than 40% reported feeling sad most of the time. Noteworthy is that three in five teen girls (57%) said that they felt hopeless in 2021, the second year of COVID restrictions. For LGBTQ+ youth, nearly 70% felt hopeless and sad that year, with more than 50% experiencing poor mental health.

Although teens recently went back to school after the COVID restrictions ended, the sadness and feelings of uncertainty have continued to get worse. The world–and especially the U.S.–has been changing, and life has become less secure. National social tension increased with the police killing of George Floyd, and gun violence and school shootings have escalated.

Role of Early Puberty

Data indicate that teens are entering puberty earlier than in the past. So, while bodies are changing, the teen brain is also developing. More is happening internally, and in the world around them, than they are prepared for. Continual access to information on social media increases exposure to stressors, but because teens’ brains are still developing, they have less cognitive and emotional preparation for handling them. These multiple stressors seem to weigh more heavily on teen girls–they have more depression and other mental health problems, as well as more body pain than boys, although boys who attempt suicide are more likely to complete suicide.

Role of Media

Social media provides a mixed bag for youth. The majority post and use social media when they are feeling good and find it provides a strong connection to peers and reduces feelings of isolation. However, it can also cause negative consequences depending on how it is used. Girls are bullied more than boys via social media–many girls may not even know the perpetrator.

Broadcast media can have a negative influence as well. Dr. Joan Asarnow, a professor at UCLA and national expert on teen suicide, notes that around the time that the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” was on TV–a show which dramatized teen suicide, bullying, rape, and featured scenes that discouraged teens from going to school counselors for help–there was a 30% increase in teen suicide nationally.

Creation of CHYP

In my 30 years as Director of the Pediatric Pain Program at UCLA, most of the patients who came to me because of headaches, abdominal pain, musculoskeletal pain, and other pain, also had anxiety, fatigue, depression, and/or insomnia. While it is often unclear which came first–physical pain or emotional distress–the mind and body are intimately connected, and pain is often exacerbated or maintained by emotional distress.

Positive media and good online social connections can help mitigate feelings of isolation, sadness, and potential self-harm risk. Creative Healing for Youth in Pain (CHYP) was created after I retired from UCLA to help fill the void in online support. I realized that teens and the group transitioning into young adulthood need positive information about pain and stress, self-help, and parenting strategies to help families feel more in control over such distress. Also essential is a platform where teens can learn strategies, based on science, about how to use their creativity to change the pain circuits in their brains, develop more emotional control, and–through understanding the mind-body connection–feel more outlets for stress. A place to connect for peer support is vital as well.

CHYP is based on years of pain research and clinical care of suffering youth. It is grounded in science, with national pain experts lending their expertise to new programs within CHYP. I suggest that youth who are suffering from pain and its baggage–and also their parents–check out www.mychyp.org and see what CHYP has to offer. It serves as online access to education about pain and emotions, providing strategies to empower youth and parents, social support connecting youth and parents to others experiencing similar stressors, and a world of creative arts opportunities to engage with each other in positive, creative experiences.