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  • Divya Vydhianathan

Comparison is the Thief of Joy: Analysis of the Rising Teen Mental Health Crisis

Teenagers in the United States (U.S.) are experiencing the worst levels of mental health in generations. According to a new Center for Disease Control (CDC) study, 44% of high school students in 2021 reported persistent hopelessness and sadness, the highest levels reported in years. With all of the information in the world at the tip of our fingers, it is easier than ever for teenagers to access the latest news, compare themselves with their peers, and cyberbully each other. When adolescents have on-demand access to such a large amount of information, they easily get carried away by what they read online. Some major issues that many American teenagers ages 13-17 face or believe to be a problem amongst their age group include anxiety, depression, bullying, and substance abuse. Despite the ease of information and the increased ability to keep in touch with friends, why are mental health challenges among teenagers growing rather than improving?

Comparison robs us of Joy.

An overarching theme that lends itself to increased levels of depression and anxiety among teenagers is comparison. Comparison takes many forms including contrasting someone’s social media presence to your real life, pressure to fit in or do well in school, bullying others to mask insecurities, or using substances to fit in.

Psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University compared social media to alcohol in 2017, saying it is “a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.” She explains that while social media can help people stay connected and informed, it can also become dangerous, addictive, and harmful to one’s well-being. Some pressures that come from social media include body dysmorphia from comparing one’s body to posed or doctored images online, facial dysmorphia from filters, being bombarded with depressing news from all across the world, and dissatisfaction when comparing one's life to things that other people are doing. Rates of bullying and cyberbullying are higher among young girls and LGBTQ+ identifying teenagers, according to the Pew Research Center, causing over half of U.S. teenagers to fear for their personal safety.

Another cause of anxiety and depression that many U.S. teenagers face is intense academic pressure to earn high grades, get into top universities, land the best internships, and prepare for the most successful outcomes in adulthood. According to Pew Research Center, 61% of U.S. teenagers say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades. Academic pressure comes from several influential factors in a teenager’s life, such as societal demands, high familial expectations, and pressure from teachers and school administrators. It used to be enough to have a high school diploma to get a well-paying job. Now, entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree, and many higher-level positions require some graduate or specialized degree, which puts pressure on teenagers from high school onward to dedicate their lives to academics. It takes a tremendous mental toll when teenagers feel they must put academic achievement over social relationships, creativity, downtime, and even their physical and mental well-being. This prioritization causes a lot of young adults to develop high-functioning anxiety, an often undiagnosed challenge due to the person’s capability to excel in their daily endeavors with seemingly no issues; however, they feel inadequate internally. Ironically, the intense pressure to succeed often leads to burnout and unhealthy coping mechanisms that decrease one’s academic capabilities.

One such unhealthy coping mechanism is the use and abuse of substances such as drugs and alcohol. Over the last two decades, underage drinking among 12th graders decreased from 54% in 1991 to 30.2% in 2018. However, marijuana use rates of around 22-23% have not decreased at all since 1998. The most dramatic increase in substance abuse comes from the upturn in the past decade of vaping, whether with nicotine or marijuana. According to the Pew Research Center, vaping rates were 20.9% for 12th-graders in 2018 (double the rates in 2017). A lot of teenagers do not receive proper care for mental health issues or experience rejection for parts of their identity from their friends or family, so they default to substance use to feel relief.

Although teenagers in America are relatively privileged compared to many others worldwide, they are now facing one of the worst mental health epidemics in history. Even so, they are also more willing to openly talk about mental health struggles and seek therapy to heal from their traumas than before due to platforms like social media. It is up to parents and teachers to make education and pressures around being a teenager more manageable so that they do not resort to poor coping mechanisms to deal with academic burnout and worsening mental health struggles. Remember to check in on your friends and family, and ensure that they are doing alright.


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