Photography lesson

Lesson of the day: ‘It’s life or death’: America’s teenage mental health crisis

Please note: This lesson is part of a larger unit on mental health, which also includes a write prompta film and one graphic discussion. Educators, please preview these resources to ensure they are appropriate for your students.

Students, if you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), call 911, go to the emergency room, get adult help, or go to talkingaboutsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Go here for resources outside the United States.


“American adolescence is undergoing a sea change,” writes Matt Richtel. “Three decades ago, the greatest public health threats to adolescents in the United States came from excessive alcohol consumption, drunk driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health problem: soaring rates of mental health disorders.

Mr. Richtel has spent more than a year interviewing teens, their families, and experts in mental health and child development about the teen mental health crisis that many hospital groups and doctors called it a “national emergency”. The result is a multi-part Times project called “The Inner Pandemic.”

In this lesson, you will read the main article of the project which reports on the crisis through the story of a 13-year-old boy named M. Next, we invite you to reflect on your thoughts and feelings about the state of mental health in today’s teens and create an emotional well-being toolkit for when you’re struggling.

Regarding your mental health, how are you? Take a few minutes to privately write how you’ve been feeling — mentally and emotionally — lately.

Then take a close look at these graphs, which were created based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from extensive surveys of more than 10,000 American high school students from public and private schools across the country. .

Then reflect in writing or discuss with your classmates:

  • What do you notice in these graphs? What do you wonder?

  • Taken together, what story do these graphs tell about adolescent mental health today?

  • Do these graphs reflect your own experience or that of your peers? Do any of them surprise you?

  • What do you think are the possible explanations for these data?

(Note: you can participate in a moderated live chat on these charts and more on adolescent health with the American Statistical Association on Wednesday, May 11, as part of our “What’s Going On In This Chart?” ” series.)

Read the articlethen answer the questions below.

(Note to teachers: if you do this in a classroom context, you might jigsaw This article. All students should read and answer the questions in Section 1. Then have individuals or small groups read each of the other three sections and answer the corresponding questions.)

Section 1: Presentation

1. The article says: “In December, in a rare public notice, the US Surgeon General warned of a ‘devastating’ mental health crisis among adolescents.” What two pieces of evidence in the introduction demonstrate that adolescent mental health is a national crisis? Do you agree with this assessment?

2. What questions does this decline in mental health raise for you?

Section 2: …………….

3. The age of onset of puberty has dropped significantly over the past century. How could this change contribute to the teen mental health crisis, experts say?

4. What are at least four ways that adolescence is different today than in past generations? How do experts explain these changes? What do you think are the possible explanations? What questions do you have?

Section 3: ‘A virtual favourite’ and ‘Elaniv’

5. Emily Pluhar, a child and adolescent psychologist at Harvard, said “the challenge and progress” of modern adolescence “is that there are so many types of identity”. How could having so many choices be progress? How could that be a challenge?

6. The article says: “Health experts note that, for all its weight, the teenage crisis at least is unfolding in a more accepting environment.” Do you agree that people today are more accepting of mental health issues? Give an example from the article or your own experience to support your opinion.

seven. Experts say increased loneliness is a key factor in declining mental health. Why do you think today’s teenagers are alone? Do you agree with Bonnie Nagel, a psychologist at Oregon Health and Science University, who thinks social media is part of the problem?

Section 4: “The pandemic factor” and “In the forest”

8. The article tells the story of the mental health crisis through M, a 13-year-old who suffered from severe depression, self-harm and a suicide attempt. Why do you think the author chose to write the article this way? How does M’s story help us better understand what young people are going through today and what could help them? Do you identify with any part of M’s experience?

9. Media education: At the end of the article, there is a note on how the reporter, Mr. Richtel, spoke with teenagers and parents for this series. Why did he approach this story differently than he might have other stories? Do you think The Times made the right choice in granting these young people anonymity, given the paper’s high bar for it?

Option 1: Discuss and reflect.

In writing, or by discussing with your classmates, answer the following questions. (If you are reading this as a puzzle, form a small group with the students who have read the sections you have not read to share what you have learned.):

  • What are the factors that may contribute to the mental health crisis in adolescents, according to the article? Are there other factors that you think are missing? If the reporter were to interview you and your classmates, what additional information would you offer?

  • Overall, in your opinion, how well does this article paint an accurate picture of the mental health status of young people today? What in the article resonated with your experience? Is there anything you disagree with? What questions do you still have?

  • How do you deal with anxiety, stress and other challenges? What practices or habits help improve your mental health?

  • What do you think adults in power, like politicians and school administrators, should be doing to address the youth mental health crisis?

You can share your thoughts and read other teens’ answers to these questions and more on our related writing prompt.

Option 2: Watch a short documentary on the science behind the mental health crisis.

“Worried Sick: A Journey Into the Anxious Teenage Mind” is a 15-minute film that delves into the science behind the crisis: Why are depression, self-harm, and suicide on the rise among American teenagers? What role do factors such as social media, early onset of puberty, and the coronavirus pandemic play in this crisis? What can be done to fix it?

Watch the film then take part in our film club to discuss with other teenagers the emotions, messages and ideas that you took away from the documentary.

Option 3: Create a mental health toolkit.

Learning more about the teenage mental health crisis can seem overwhelming. But it’s important to remember, experts say, that suicide is preventable and that mental health conditions, such as self-harm, depression and anxiety, can be treated.

How can you help yourself stay mentally healthy? How can you be prepared if you notice that you are struggling and need help? Try creating a mental health toolkit that includes coping strategies, links to mental health resources, and a list of adults you feel comfortable talking to. You can create a kit just for yourself or collect ideas with your class that could help many students.

Here are some ideas, along with articles from The Times where you can find more information:

For coping mechanisms you can use in the moment, check out these articles for ideas on how to deal with anxiety, stress, anger, sadness and more:

For strategies that can keep you mentally healthy, like getting enough sleep, meditating, or exercising, here are some resources:

Here are some people and places you could turn to when you’re in crisis. Include everyone’s names and contact information.

  • An adult you trust and feel comfortable talking to, such as a parent, family member, friend, or teacher.

  • Your school nurse, counselor or social worker.

  • Your therapist or doctor.

  • Resources and helplines you can call or text in a crisis. You can find a list at SpeakingofSuicide.com/resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has information on other types of emergency mental health services.


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