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Alarming US data on child mental health: Wake-up call to end social malaise

By Bharat Dogra 

If 1 out of 2 high school girls feel persistently sad or hopeless and one out of six students plan suicide in a year, isn’t it time for a society so affected to look inwards at what has gone wrong, so that at least, and as a first step, the causes of such a dismal state of affairs can be identified correctly? After all, effective remedial action depends first and foremost on a proper identification of causes.
This is all the more necessary in a situation when, as this alarming official data for year 2019 for USA tells us, in addition there is an incredibly high rate of increase of these problems.
According to the data of the  (the latest such data available at present and also quoted by the USA Surgeon General in the advisory issued by him in 2021), in 2019 37% of all high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. What is more, within a decade (2009-2019), this had recorded a 40% increasing, rising from 26% to 37%, a very fast rate of increase. Why is sadness and hopelessness so widely pervasive in one of the richest countries with relatively very high educational and health spending?
At the same time, this data base has revealed that one out of six students reported making a suicide plan in 2019. Again, there was a terribly high increase in this tendency in the previous decade 2009-2019, an increase of 44%. A question that needs to be faced is—in such a rich country with such high material comforts and such a high exposure to diversity of entertainment and sports, why is one out of six children preparing a suicide plan?
According to the Advisory on Mental Health issued by the USA Surgeon General in 2021, there was an even higher rise in the suicide rate in the age-group 10-24 in the USA from 2007 to 2018—57%. In 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death in this age-group.
According to the Surgeon General Advisory as well as several other reports, on top of the very serious situation existing already by 2019, as indicated in the data presented above, there was a further very rapid deterioration during the COVID period. To give an indication, according to the USA Surgeon General advisory, in early 2021 there was a further 51% rise in emergency department visits by adolescent girls in the USA relating to suicide attempts, compared to the similar period in 2019.
In the fall of the same year 2021, a coalition of the USA’s leading experts in pediatric health, declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
All these are alarming figures. The surgeon general has also used the word ‘alarming’ for this. He has stated, “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade.”
However while the data is there, no comprehensive, credible explanation appears to have emerged yet at a wide level of why, in one of the richest countries enjoying very special privileges, children and adolescents are in such an extreme stage of sadness, hopelessness and desperation, and why is there such rapid recent increase in this. Of course in a country with so many capable, resourceful researchers and research institutions, several explanations have been offered. Several of these draw attention to important aspects and offer helpful insights (the Surgeon General’s Advisory has also contributed much to this), but not an understanding that is comprehensive and deep enough to provide a very effective, hope-giving base for remedial action.
One explanation that has emerged is that the social media and accompanying gadgets have contributed much of this increase in the decade preceding the pandemic, but this is more of a manifestation of the basic problems rather than being the root cause itself. The wider reality of course is that while many explanations concentrate on what wrongs children may be doing, in fact children and adolescents live for the most part in a world that others, the adult members of society have built for them. They are much more the victims and less the perpetrators of the serious distortions and ills of the world created by the adults for which they, the adults must bear responsibility. The fact that the adults also suffer from high rates of mental health problems complicates the situation further.
To give just an example of the world given to (or inflicted on ) children and adolescents, the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, USA, has collected the following USA-level data from various official sources:
  • About one half of the USA children under the age of 18 are reported to be victims of various forms of abuse and nearly half of these victims of abuse are more specifically victims of child sexual abuse, even though most cases of child abuse and child sexual abuse go unreported. 
  • Every hour 58 girls and 40 boys become victims of child sexual abuse. A child abuse case is reported every 10 seconds (even though most cases go unreported). 
  • 90% victims of abuse know, trust and love the perpetrators of abuse (as they are family members, relatives or care-givers), which makes the abuse all the more traumatic and shattering for them, destroying trust.
  • 20% of child victims of abuse are under age 8 years of age. One in 3 children get exposed to unwanted sexual material, one in seven internet users are solicited sexually.
  • 60% of pregnant teens are victims of sexual abuse. 100,000 children and adolescents enter prostitution annually. The average age of girls entering prostitution is 12 to 14.
  • Nearly 800,000 children go missing every year, or 2000 every day.
  • 3.3 million children see violence in their home every year.
  • 5 children are reported to die every day due to child abuse, although such fatalities are under-reported to a significant data.
Child abuse exists across all socio-economic groups.
As for the impact of all this on mental health, this data based on official sources says that about 80% of 21-year olds who suffered from child abuse report at least one psychological disorder while 60% of those in drug rehabilitation centers say they suffered abuse as children.
According to another report of American Counseling Association, among child and adolescent victims of child abuse, there is 42% increase of possibility of suicidal thoughts during adolescence.
The data base of the National Alliance for Children mentions the additional highly distressing fact that 15% of child abuse victims are in the first year of their life; 1 out of 40 infants under 1 year are victims of abuse in a typical year.
In the world created by the adults for children, there is a lot of racial discrimination and abuse. There are many additional problems for special groups identified on basis of disabilities or late development or sexual orientation. Students who care to explore more find their idealism crushed by what they learn about the atrocities of their country’s leadership and armies that have claimed millions of lives and led to the overthrow of dozens of democratic governments worldwide. They also learn that their country and leaders are in the forefront of aggravating the arms race, accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, that they responsible for the worst pollution and GHG emissions. Climate change, other serious environmental problems and weapons of mass destruction have made their own future extremely risky and uncertain, and if students study this seriously they realize that their own leaders have contributed the most to this. Inequality levels are peaking in their country, to an extent contributing to their own worries, uncertainties and debts, or that of their parents and families.
This then is the world inflicted on the tender, impressionable minds of children and adolescents, and the statistics summarized here very briefly can only tell a part of the distressing story. This is why there is a clear need to look inwardly and more deeply where the entire society has gone wrong , why a leadership seeking to create the most billionaires and world level hegemony has ended up creating a society in which the ( supposed to be ) most loved ones—children-- are the most distressed. Real reform and remedial action is possible only on the basis of such honest introspection.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Protecting Earth for Children', ‘Planet in Peril’ and ‘A Day in 2071’

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