The news on teen mental health is out, and it’s worse than ever — especially when it comes to adolescent girls. A recent study found that 1 in 3 teen girls seriously considered suicide in the past year.
Depression rates have doubled in the past decade for all teens. While there is increasing evidence that social media and mobile devices are associated with these pernicious trends, it is clear that there are also other serious factors at play. And what we are finding strongly suggests that even if we could provide a qualified therapist for every single distressed teen (which we can’t), this wouldn’t address core issues at play that need to be part of the mental health solution.
With this in mind, I offer five scientifically-based, natural solutions for improving your teen’s mental health.
Teens are notorious for their consumption of junk food and fast food. But a recent study found that 67% of the calories that youth get from food come from ultra-processed food (UPF), which has risen significantly over the past two decades.
UPFs have little or no micronutrients, and so they do not help supply the brain with vitamins or minerals necessary for good mental health functioning. Given that bodies and minds of our youth are constantly developing, it’s no surprise that poor nutrition is one reason rates of psychological problems with depression, anxiety and suicidality have reached epidemic proportions. As Dr. Bonnie Kaplan has noted, “Starving brains are driving the mental health crisis.”
As parents, there are many things we can do intervene with our teens in this area. In addition to bringing more natural foods in the home and reducing the availability of UPFs, families can prioritize (and even make fun) time spent making and preserving healthy recipes.
Parents should regularly learn and interact with their teens about nutrition (just as they do about academics and entertainment) and in some situations, consider seeking out broad spectrum micronutrients (with physician approval) that been scientifically shown to improve anxiety, mood, attention, and other areas.
Movement and the natural world
The second and third recommendation comes together, and it involves moving together more outside in the natural world, even in colder temperatures.
A large amount of scientific evidence indicates that regular movement is a key in improving mental health; in fact, exercise has been found to be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as therapy and/or medication.
Similarly, studies have increasingly shown that being outside is essential for our mental health. Yet sadly, less than 30% of high schoolers get the prescribed amount of exercise per day.
During the past decade, I started a men’s backpacking group (open to high school age and above) and a father-daughter backpacking group, and watched many teens who have never hiked or backpacked at all suddenly take to the trails with delight. These groups have spurred many other outings in the natural world for these youth and families, and opportunities for our teens to remove themselves from the stressful, frenetic circumstances of their lives.
Just this past weekend, I listened to two 7 th grade girls, who were new to our father-daughter group and had never backpacked before, excitedly describe all the firsts and records that our most recent trip brought for them (e.g., most miles, most creek crossings, most time spent on the trail). It was clear that within the first hour, even amidst the toil that backpacking can bring, they had been released from the stressors of the prior week and were excited to see their potential grow.
We as parents can and need to do everything possible to encourage and support getting our teens “off the grid” into world where likes and posts are exchanged for movement and wonders.
Social interaction and devices/media
Finally, coming back to the recent research on social media and mobile devices, never has it become more clear that teens need us as parents to set boundaries and provide guidance that they cannot do for themselves. As Dr. Mitch Prinstein, Chief Science Officer for the American Psychological Association, testified in front of Congress regarding this issue, social media platforms “create the exact opposite qualities needed for successful and adaptive relationships (i.e., [they are] disingenuous, anonymous, depersonalized).
In other words, social media offers the “empty calories of social interaction…” that can actually lead to greater loneliness. Which means we as parents have to do two things that make up the final recommendations.
One, we have to set the limits where our kids cannot, and support other parents doing the same.
In our home, even though our oldest kids (of eight) are juniors in high school, we have gifted them with a life without mobile devices or social media. Has it made them different than most of their peers? For sure. Has it brought about challenges? Absolutely. But do our kids understand why we are making these decisions, and how they can still enjoy and be successful in high school without this? We certainly believe so.
Even if your teen has access to both, whether it is making sure they charge their phones outside the bedroom at night or have certain hours when all tech time is off limits, there are many creative accessible ways to reduce this risk, assuming that parents aren’t afraid to do what’s right and not just trendy.
Yet just reducing tech risks is just half of this; we have to provide and reinforce regular opportunities to engage with others in a meaningful, real way.
Whether through church youth groups, regular outings with the immediate and extended families, a quick game of Yahtzee, or just hanging out on the porch to eat dinner on a nice night, we as parents must be intentional about providing for positive interactions that can buffer psychological distress.
As a father of eight children, I get that we are all busy and pressed in so many ways, and I get that the current climate often does not support our youth’s overall well-being. But as our teens are just a few years away from the adult world, never has it been more important to help them understand critical ways to boost and sustain their mental health.