One of the more disturbing reports recently published concerns the dramatic increase in levels of depression and suicide among adolescent girls. The report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that the percentage of teen girls reporting persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness is at its highest level since 2012. Although teenage boys are also affected by mental health problems, teen girls are bearing the brunt of this epidemic.
The CDC culled the following data regarding the mental health experiences and behaviors of high school students in the U.S.:
- About one in three teen girls (30 percent) say they have “seriously considered suicide”–a 60 percent increase from a decade ago.
- One in five teen girls (18 percent) has experienced sexual assault/sexual violence–a 20 percent increase since 2017.
- Over one in 10 teen girls (14 percent) say they have been forced to engage in sexual activity–a 27 percent increase since 2019.
- Over one in five LGBQ+ high school students say they have attempted suicide in the past year.
- High and worsening levels of persistent hopelessness and sadness exist across many ethnic and racial groups. Suicide attempts reported by black and white youth have increased as well.
The CDC concluded its report by stating that it has been collecting and analyzing data on adolescent wellbeing and health for over 30 years. This particular report is not only alarming but indicates a deepening trend–both pre-pandemic and post-pandemic–in adolescents who are consistently experiencing severe depression, suicide ideation, and violence.
What Factors Are Contributing to a High Suicide Risk Among Teen Girls?
Cultural and gender factors
Upbringing and the way that girls are raised can make them more vulnerable to depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. Girls learn by modeling parental and societal expectations for how they are supposed to relate to the world and manage stress. By as early as age 10, many girls have begun to internalize their negative emotions. They may blame themselves when they cannot cope with stress or feel like they have somehow failed to achieve assumptions regarding their behavior or appearance.
Puberty and ensuing changes to the brain and body—not to mention a surge of hormones—increases teen girls’ vulnerability to mental health issues. Not surprisingly, adolescence is often when mental health challenges first emerge.
Hormones, neurotransmitters, and the female brain
Sex-based differences between the male brain and the female brain are well-documented. Many of these differences evolved to increase the survival chances of men and women. Millions of years after our ancestors left Africa, we still retain these survival instincts today, even when they are no longer necessary. Hunter-gatherer societies were defined by women staying home, cooking meals, and rearing children, while men hunted animals for food, shelter, and clothing.
Over time, women developed a keen sense of empathy, emotional sensitivity, and desire to form strong bonds with other women in the group. Similar instincts are at play when teen girls base their personal worth, self-esteem, and behaviors on the success of their relationships with peers. It is not overstating things to say that teen girls are neurologically wired to crave approval and validation.
Concerns about appearance are one way that this desire for approval often manifests itself. (This obsession with looking attractive is also an aspect of the survival instinct. Not that long ago, a person who was physically unattractive, disabled, or deformed was ostracized from the group. If you did not “belong” to a group, you lived a lonely and unsafe existence isolated and shunned by everyone.) Most teen girls want to be considered attractive so that other girls and boys “like” them, which is a reason why they often take and post pictures of themselves on social media wearing adult clothing and heavy makeup.
During adolescence, the compelling need for teen girls to have friends can cause stress, depression, and suicidal thoughts if they view themselves as unpopular. Moreover, complicating strong emotions and desires in teen girls is the constant fluctuation of hormones and brain chemicals preparing their bodies for womanhood.
Other Factors Contributing to the High Suicide Risk in Teen Girls
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems have genetic components that may make a teen girl more vulnerable to the negative effects of chronic stress.
History of abuse/trauma
Teen boys and girls suffering abuse or neglect are at an extremely high risk for suicide, drug addiction, and running away from home.
Personality disorders/personality traits
Teen girls with borderline personality disorder present the highest risk of attempting suicide. Characteristics of borderline personality disorder include difficulty regulating emotions, low self-esteem, mood swings, and a deep fear of rejection.
Examining the Role of Social Media and Technology in Contributing to Teen Girls’ Mental Health
Over the past decade, warnings from adolescent psychologists about the detrimental impact social media has on teenage mental health have grown louder in urgency. The most popular social media platforms among teens–Instagram and TikTok–have claimed they are closely monitoring posts and using AI to find and delete posts that are abusive or bully users. However, since these social media companies are private companies that are not regulated by the federal government, they can run their platform any way they want without significant ramifications.
TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube emphasize the importance of users accumulating “followers” and “likes.” Getting as many likes and followers as possible is basically the goal of teens using these sites. To do this, teenagers must attract attention by posting statements and pictures that are exaggerated in some way. Teen girls often do this by posting pictures of themselves wearing suggestive clothes or doing something that shocks other users. Teen girls who feel depressed, lonely, or worthless may post statements about themselves that aren’t even true just to get the attention and “followers” they so badly want.
Chief Science Officer for the American Psychological Association (APA) Mitch Prinstein explains how a part of the brain associated with craving attention and peer approval develops before the part of the brain associated with “resisting temptations and inhibiting behavior” matures in teens. The “likes” and “followers” that social media platforms provide only stimulate that craving, in essence rewarding teens for inappropriate and self-destructive behaviors.
Addressing the High Suicide Risk Among Teen Girls: What Can Parents Do?
Parents should be aware of certain situations and circumstances that could increase the risk of their teen daughter thinking about or attempting suicide, including:
- Death of a close relative or friend
- Parents separating or divorcing
- Being victimized by online or in-person bullying
- Being discriminated against for their ethnicity, culture, or sexual orientation
- Easy access to weapons in the home
- Witnessing violence in the home
- Being the victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Experiencing upheaval in the home (financial instability, natural catastrophe, homelessness)
Never assume your daughter is playing games or just trying to anger you when they say things like “I want to die” or “I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up.” No matter the context in which a teen girl seems to be telling anyone who will listen that they are thinking about suicide, parents should always take this language an attitude seriously.