There’s a mental crisis among teens. The Catholic Church needs to respond.
On May 11, President Biden is expected to end the Covid-19 national and public health emergencies. But three years after the start of the pandemic, we are still grappling with what this time of fear and isolation has exposed about our society. One of the most concerning revelations is how an already serious mental health crisis among U.S. teenagers deepened during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their latest Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, reporting results of a poll of 17,000 students in the fall of 2021 about their health and well-being. While certain detriments to health, including risky sexual behavior, drinking and smoking, have all decreased over the past decade, the C.D.C. found that negative mental health outcomes and thoughts of suicide have all increased significantly since 2011. Some groups saw even more alarming increases in recent years, including girls, Black students, and gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents. In 2021, 60 percent of female students (compared with 40 percent of all students) said they had “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” within the previous year, and nearly a quarter said they had made a “suicide plan.” Among students who do not identify as heterosexual, those numbers were even higher, nearly 70 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Black students were less likely to report poor mental health but more likely to report a suicide attempt.
It is striking to compare the risks to teenage well-being in the pre-digital world with today’s teenage experience. Drinking, smoking and risky sex can certainly be dangerous, but today’s crisis is foremost one of isolation and disconnection.
There is no simple explanation for these distressing trends. In 2021, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public statement on the “devastating” challenges to young people’s mental health, challenges that he said predate the pandemic. Experts disagree on just how much social media use drives poor mental health outcomes, but research shows teenage girls are particularly harmed by online bullying and that apps like Instagram and TikTok have a negative effect on their body image. Perhaps even more important than the apps themselves are what screentime is replacing: sleep, exercise, hobbies, time with friends or family, and time in nature—all necessary ingredients for good mental health. And too often, when teens are engaged in social activities, it is not to relax and connect with others. Rather, they have been told they must build a lengthy résumé or even to build a “personal brand” in order to get into increasingly selective colleges and compete in a high-stakes economy.
It is striking to compare the risks to teenage well-being in the pre-digital world with today’s teenage experience. Drinking, smoking and risky sex can certainly be dangerous, but today’s crisis is foremost one of isolation and disconnection, often masked by online lives of performative happiness and success. Gen Z, which encompasses those who are just beginning their careers, is characterized by a lack of trust in and sense of belonging to institutions—and not without good reason. They have never known a world before the clerical sex abuse crisis, the debacles of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, the reckless banking practices leading to the global financial crisis of 2008, and a government unable to curb climate change and gun violence. Lacking any sense of communal belonging, they are left to define themselves and to perform that identity on social media for their peers and complete strangers to affirm or denigrate.
This crisis is both psychological and spiritual, and it demands a response from both mental health and faith communities. What is needed from the former is by no means an insignificant undertaking but is more straightforward. Every day in this country, hundreds of teens at risk for suicide spend the night in emergency rooms because there is no open spot in an inpatient treatment center where they might receive the therapy they need. Pediatricians, especially in rural and low-income areas, are being flooded with patients in severe emotional distress that they may not have the training to properly address. Even for middle-class Americans with good insurance, seeing a therapist on a regular basis can be prohibitively expensive. Investments in the institutions and practitioners to provide young people with the care they deserve is a necessary first step.
Believing that helping teens care for their mental health is a work of mercy and a cooperation with God’s grace already at work in their lives, even when they may be far from the church and not yet ready to engage with it.
The role of faith ministers, including in the Catholic Church, is less clear-cut but one we must not overlook. Research from the Springtide Institute, which studies the faith lives of young people, has found that religiously affiliated young people report higher levels of flourishing (though that relationship is not necessarily causal). That is good news, but the question should not be “How do we get young people back in the pews?” You cannot get them back if they were never there, and nearly half of Gen Z are religious “nones.” The question is rather, “How do we make our church again a place of belonging for young people who are hurting?”
Pope Francis offers one answer. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity,” the pope said in his 2013 interview with America and several other Jesuit journals. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” That means meeting troubled teens where they are, not in order to get them back to church, but so they know there are adults in their lives whom they can trust to have their best interests at heart, adults who are not trying to supply easy answers but are willing to listen to their questions, doubts and pain. It means believing that helping teens care for their mental health is a work of mercy and a cooperation with God’s grace already at work in their lives, even when they may be far from the church and not yet ready to engage with it.
As Josh Packard, the former executive director of the Springtide Institute, has said, caring for mental health is not just preparatory work for other evangelization or catechesis, but “this can be the real work of showing what faith looks like in action.” It is a hopeful sign that more dioceses around the country are taking this work seriously.
In 2022, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., launched a diocesan Task Force on Youth Wellness to respond to the post-pandemic increase in mental health problems. “We have professional, pastoral and spiritual gifts we can bring to help support and heal the wounded and frightened members of our community—Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” he said in announcing the task force. Other dioceses should consider similar initiatives.
Neither the church nor mental health professionals can address the crisis among teens on their own. But they, and the church as a whole, can and must become places of understanding, meaning and community for hurting members of the body of Christ.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find more resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention here.