The mental health of American teens is worse than ever

US teens are experiencing the worst levels of mental-health problems ever recorded, and the gap between the number of teenagers who report mental-health conditions and the number of those who receive treatment is increasing.

A new report from the United Hospital Fund, an independent nonprofit, gathers together the latest data on teen mental health. Although the latest data derive from 2022, at the height of the pandemic, the sharp trends detailed in the report began at least a decade earlier.

In 2022, just shy of 7 million US teens had one or more behavioural health conditions. 4.3 million teens experienced disordered eating, 3.5 million had ADD/ADHD, 2.3 million suffered depression and 4.1 million suffered anxiety.

Trends have increased significantly since 2010. In that year, 8,063 out of every 100,000 teens experienced a major depressive episode. By 2021, that figure had more than doubled, to 19,863. Increasing trends can also be observed for persistent sadness and hopelessness, risky and health-threatening behaviours and suicidality.

The data also reveal that treatment is much less common than diagnosis, which in turn is less common than reported symptoms. So while numbers of diagnoses of conditions like depression and ADHD continue to soar, treatment is failing to keep pace. And for every 20 teens reporting symptoms of depression in 2022, for example, only 10 were actually diagnosed.

The study estimates that 94 million days of school are missed annually by teens due to behavioural health conditions, and that for every additional behavioural health condition, a teen will lose 14 days of school a year. In economic terms, between $5.7 and $11.5 billion in wages are lost by parents who have to care for children with behavioural health conditions, or an average of between $6,300 and $12,500 per family.

“The pandemic exacerbated these trends, but this issue has been growing year over year for the past decade,” said Oxiris Barbot, MD, president and CEO of the United Hospital Fund.

“And there hasn’t been anything earth-shattering on either the local or the national level to give us any indication that things are turning the corner.”

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