The kids are not alright.

This is especially true when it comes to teen girls, according to a recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that in 2021 almost 1 in 3 high school girls reported they seriously considered suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade ago.

That wasn’t the only alarming finding. The study also discovered that almost 15% of teen girls said they had been forced into sex, an increase of 27% over two years and the first increase since the CDC began tracking such numbers.

“If you think about every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one and possibly more has been raped, and that is the highest level we’ve ever seen,” said an official with the CDC.

Almost 3 in 5 teenage girls reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row during the previous year that they stopped doing their regular activities — double the share of boys and the highest in a decade, CDC data showed.

Girls are using more drugs and alcohol than boys. They’re reporting higher levels of being bullied online. They’re actually attempting suicide — and not just thinking about it — more than boys.

What is going on?

There are theories about why this is happening, and why it’s happening now.

Some experts say that girls tend to internalize their pain, directing it inward, in contrast to boys, who tend to take their suffering out on the world via anger and aggression. Teen girls may be more vulnerable than boys to societal messages that tell them they must look a certain way to be acceptable — a glance at any one of a gazillion social media images reveals how absurdly high that bar is. 

The rise in mental health issues among youth began over a decade ago, but then COVID-19 came along and added fuel to the fire, exacerbating teen girls’ sense of loneliness and isolation. (And, yes, the pandemic hit everyone hard, but apparently adolescent females the hardest.) Experts spoke of a wave of anxiety and depression that beset the nation’s adolescents, especially girls, in the virus’s wake, a tsunami that has yet to recede.

Some have theorized a rise in domestic violence tied to the pandemic could account for the wave of sexual assaults reported by teen girls. 

Youth who are LGBTQ are especially prone to being victims of sexual assault and are more likely to be the target of online bullying, the data show. But overall girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied through texting and social media. 

At a briefing announcing the new data, a CDC official said, “America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma.”

Teens girls speak of unrelenting pressures that push them toward eating disorders, cutting and other self-destructive acts, pressures that include not just looking the right way but the need to achieve academically, get into the right college and excel in a future that seems unknowable and daunting.

Bullying and mean girls are nothing new.

I can remember the pain in elementary school when a group of mean-girls-in-training decided to ostracize me, for reasons I can’t remember. In middle school, I found myself on the other side of the bullying boundary, when I joined a group of tween female tormentors as we socially shunned another girl — again, for reasons I can’t remember. (I think we decided she was simply too pretty.)

I recall both episodes with a wisp of long-ago agony, even in the instance when I wasn’t the target — maybe especially so — because of the guilt my actions engendered. But this schoolyard antagonism from decades ago pales in comparison to what’s happening to girls today.

The relentlessness of modern-day electronic harassment, with its anonymity and mob mentality and gleeful pile-ons, is no doubt one of the driving forces behind the increase in girls’ heightened suicidal ideation, something that was simply unheard of in my day — or if it did happen, it was rare.

The kerosene of online bullying and other unsavory messages often come through sites like Instagram, which a score of studies shows have a negative impact of on the mental health of teen girls.

Again, a comparison to previous decades is instructive. 

As a child and adolescent growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I remember struggling valiantly to attain the level of attractiveness possessed by the glossy young beauties who graced the pages of Seventeen magazine, which landed in our mail box each month. Every summer, I would slather on baby oil in a hopeless quest to achieve that perfect glow, and spritz Sun-In on my brunette hair in a quest for blondness. 

All I ended up with were freckles, a sunburn and green tresses.

I think it was a mixture of societal pressures, such as they were back then, and personal issues stemming from my family that caused me to suffer from horrid, intermittent panic attacks all through my teens and 20s, along with a binge-eating disorder that ebbed and flowed during that same time period. Mercifully, both of those problems burned themselves out as I got older.

But I can only imagine how much worse off I would have been in today’s teen world, with its ubiquitous social media, TikTok influencer and Kardashian-soaked culture. (On the plus side, at least today’s kids are talking about mental illness; when my panic attacks began, there was no public conversation about anxiety. I struggled alone in my ignorance, fearing that I was either about to die or be carted off to an insane asylum.)

Another analogue: When my elementary school best friend Becky and I discovered her big brother’s stash of Playboys, we were scandalized and titillated by the images of topless women, which seem tame, almost wholesome in comparison to the current reality. Today, three-quarters of teenagers have viewed explicit pornography online by the age of 17, with the average age of first exposure at age 12, according to the report by Common Sense Media. Most of these images are violent and dehumanizing toward women.

There may be a political element to the wave of anxiety and depression among teen girls, with some speculating that adolescent females who identify as left-leaning may be reacting in despair to current events — climate change, school shootings, police brutality, the #MeToo movement and other lamentable elements of today’s world.

In contrast, some conservative pundits lay the blame on the loss of God and religion in the public square, the decline in two-parent families and the way progressive individualism, with its inherent focus on self and freedom, has robbed our youth — our girls — of connective tissue.

That seems facile, and flies in the face of studies that show it’s boys, not girls, who fare more negatively when it comes to the impact of fatherless homes, poverty and bad neighborhoods. (It’s notable that U.S. boys and men aren’t doing so hot these days, either, for a different set of reasons, but that’s a topic for a another day.)

When I read about what’s going on with teen girls, I thanked my lucky stars my own child was born in 1988, an era of (mostly) harmless video games that presaged the dawn of cell phones and social media and a culture where youth are more comfortable interacting with screens than each other — even as those very screens torture them.

Today’s parents of teens aren’t so fortunate, with 40% worried that their kids under 18 might struggle with anxiety and depression, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

Current efforts to tame the hydra-headed monster that is the online world are complex and hardly guaranteed of success, but communities can do things. 

Studies show if kids feel a connection at school — with each other, with staff, with activities outside of class — they do better. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth, students of color and girls.

Parents play a role, too, say experts, beyond the obvious — and admittedly difficult — goal of limiting kids’ screen time. They can help mitigate their teen’s strong feelings — and big feelings are a hallmark of adolescence — by being there, asking questions and listening. Offer a supportive shoulder, an earful of empathy. Validate their feelings.

If a situation seems too much for a child to handle, if he or she is struggling with or unable to attend to regular activities, it’s time to step in and get professional help.

Other expert advice is on the way. 

Tuesday at noon, the San Antonio Report will host an in-person, lunchtime panel discussion titled, “Crisis and Opportunity: Youth Mental Health in Bexar County” at Clarity Child Guidance Center.

A panel of five local mental health experts will speak and field questions from the audience about the ongoing mental health crisis facing local youth, as well as new ways to help. Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick, who covers social issues for the Report, will moderate the discussion.

The panel will be livestreamed on YouTube.

The time has come for this kind of event: Almost half of teens surveyed in spring 2022 by the San Antonio Youth Commission and Project Worth Teen Ambassadors reported feeling “helpless, hopeless, numb, or like nothing matters.”

Girls — indeed all youth — clearly need a lifeline. And we need to be the ones to throw it.

Melissa Fletcher Stolje, columnist for the San Antonio Report, on Friday.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...