Play Live Radio
Next Up:

Why the children's mental health crisis isn't new


The school year is winding down, but parental anxiety isn't. That's because after a tough two years dealing with all the fallout of the COVID pandemic, we're also learning just how much children and youth are struggling with mental health issues, even as the pandemic-related restrictions ease. In their 2022 trend report, the American Psychological Association called the situation a crisis. But our next guest says that this crisis isn't new, that in fact, children and youth have been struggling for years now, and that the toxic politics tying the issue to the COVID pandemic isn't helping. Judith Warner, a journalist and author who's written extensively about mental health issues, wrote about all this recently for The Washington Post Magazine in a piece titled "The Children's Mental Health Crisis Didn't Start With the Pandemic." And she's with us now to tell us more. Judith Warner, thanks so much for joining us.

JUDITH WARNER: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So when did it start? If it didn't start with the pandemic, is there a timeframe that you could point to, to suggest when, you know, this really became a concern?

WARNER: I'm sure there was no point in time when kids didn't have mental health issues. I mean, it just wouldn't make sense because adults have them. And most mental health issues begin by early adolescence. But certainly there's been an acceleration over the past ten years. I think that there isn't any debate about that, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there is one disturbing statistic that 1 in 6 high school students revealed they had created a suicide plan in the previous year. This is according to a 2019 CDC report. And that's a 44% increase since 2009. So in that timeframe that you're telling us about, why might that be?

WARNER: You know, there are so many theories about it. And the most popular theory is always that it has to do with the advent of smartphones. And, you know, there's no doubt that life online has had an impact. Social media has had some kind of impact. But none of the experts I've spoken with have ever been willing to just simplify it down to one thing. I don't think it's ever just one thing. And at this point, you know, I think there's always the issue of reporting that with each successive generation of parents. We have parents who are increasingly aware of mental health issues, grew up with people talking about them, you know, bring less stigma to it than in generations before. I really see that with younger parents now compared to my own cohort, let's say. So that's of course part of it. But this has also been a really stressful time in our country, you know, for quite a while now. And so I think that you can't separate out what's happening with kids from what's been happening with all of us.

MARTIN: So I guess with - when you look at all of that, do you sense any consensus among adults that this really is a crisis? I know that mental health practitioners are saying that it is. A lot of parents are saying that it is. A lot of school officials are saying that it is. Do you see any broader public consensus that this is a crisis that needs to be focused on?

WARNER: Yes, I think that there is a broader social consensus now that this is a crisis that needs to be focused on. And one thing that is, I don't know, frustrating, ironic about that is that for such a long time, the opposite narrative was the consensus. That kids were being overdiagnosed, you know, that kids were being over pathologized and that, you know, we were doing harm to our kids in the process. And it's - I guess there's still some of that rhetoric in all of the special snowflake talk, you know? Oh, this generation is so sensitive that they react to everything. I've always, you know, hated that. And especially now, I think it's something that people really ought to call into question, because it's clear that, you know, this younger generation is suffering and they have good reasons to be suffering. And, you know, we can't minimize what they've - what they're going through. It's been a really ugly and difficult time.

MARTIN: But is there then any sort of larger social consensus about what we should do about it? Do you see any consensus around a direction that this country could take to address these matters?

WARNER: I think that when you look at what the experts say - the expert organizations - the American Psychological Association, et cetera - there is a consensus among experts about what has to happen. And it turns around access and affordability and also diversifying the mental health workforce, the school counseling workforce. I mean, you see this over and over again. I also think there is a consensus in that expert community around the fact that something has to happen really fast and that you need to bring help to kids where they are. So you need to increase work that can be done in schools around giving them the tools basically to remain mentally healthier, you know, to deal with really high levels of distress. And the problem is, I am not in any way convinced that any of that is going to happen. I mean, you know, one of the things that parents who are, you know, yelling at school board meetings are now yelling about is social emotional learning, which somehow has been turned into a vector for so-called critical race theory, none of which makes any sense. But if they're already pushing back on social emotional learning, then what's going to happen, you know, when you step it up a bit and say, well, you have to actually do some psychological skill building?

MARTIN: This sounds actually very discouraging. It sounds like a really discouraging picture. So can we leave people with some thoughts about what they can do if they are concerned about this, particularly for parents?

WARNER: Well, yeah. And I also think it's funny - (laughter) because I'm such a negative person - but I don't think it's all that discouraging in that, solutions do exist. Solutions that work, that aren't terribly expensive and that can be put into place really quickly and easily. Meaning, you know, these school-based interventions, these trainings, and I think that, you know, for parents to be aware of that, it would be a very important and potentially powerful thing. You know, if they're demanding it, if they're demanding that there's funding for that, that time is being spent on that, rather than, as is often the case, complaining that school time should just be used for academic subjects.

MARTIN: Judith Warner is a journalist and bestselling author who has written extensively about youth mental health. Her latest book is "And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School." The article that we're talking about, about children's mental health appears in The Washington Post Magazine. Judith Warner, thanks so much for joining us.

WARNER: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, we hope you'll contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.