How Many Teens Have Depression & Why Is It Happening?

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How many teens have depression in the US? What are the causes of teen depression?

Teenage depression is on the rise in the United States. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, up from 28% in 2011.

Read on to learn how many teens have depression, which groups are at high risk, and some of the causes.

How Many Teens Have Depression?

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed steadily rising rates of mental health challenges among teenagers. Among other areas of behavior, the report analyzed how many teens have depression in the US and found that instances of depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors are particularly high for girls, LGBTQ+ youth, and racial minority groups. The study, which looks at data from 2011 through 2021, found some disturbing trends over time, including:

  • In 2021, 42% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 28% in 2011. These feelings were highest for female (57%) and LGBTQ+ (69%) students.
  • The percentage of teens who seriously considered attempting suicide increased from 13% to 18%. The number who actually made an attempt went from 8% to 10%.
  • Black students were more likely than their Asian, white, and Hispanic counterparts to attempt suicide.
  • Indicators for poor mental health increased on nearly all measures and among all demographics.

Experts are calling this a nationwide public health crisis. In this article, we’ll look at some of the research that attempts to explain the causes of this.

What Are the Causes?

Apart from understanding how many teens have depression, it’s also important to examine the causes of this upward trend in depression. We’ll first address some factors that probably aren’t causing it:

  • Increased willingness to admit to mental health problems: Some might suggest that because it’s increasingly acceptable for young people to talk about their mental health challenges, it may just look like there’s been an increase in how many teens have depression. However, this alone can’t explain the trends, because we also see a rise in depression-related behaviors, such as self-harm and suicide attempts. The CDC reports that emergency room admissions for self-harm among 10- to 14-year-old girls tripled between 2009 and 2015.
  • Teens making poor life choices: On many of the typical “bad behaviors” of teenagers, there have actually been positive trends. Teens today drink, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual behavior less frequently than those in the past, so these behaviors don’t correlate with increased mental health challenges. 

So, if we can’t blame the pandemic, drugs and alcohol, or increased self-reporting for teens’ declining mental health, what’s to blame? Experts don’t all agree on the causes of this trend, but we’ll look here at a few suggested (likely interconnected) factors: smartphones and media exposure, decreasing social interaction, disconnection from nature, and parenting methods.

Smartphones and Social Media

So, what’s actually behind the uptick in how many teens are suffering from depression? Social media use is one of the most common factors implicated in rising teen depression and anxiety, and for good reason. A large-scale study conducted in the UK looked at 84,000 participants and found that social media use is correlated with lower life satisfaction, especially during particularly sensitive time periods—ages 11 to 13 for girls, and 14 to 15 for boys, and then again for both at around age 19. 

Researchers at Instagram have conducted their own studies, as well, and found that 32% of teen girls who already felt insecure about their bodies said Instagram made them feel worse. Many teens also report feeling addicted to the technology, saying they have trouble stopping their use—but the same users say they enjoy it. This has clear parallels with addictions like alcohol and drug use. 

Some have suggested, however, that it’s less the social media itself that’s affecting teens’ mental health, but the other things it’s displacing in their lives—such as in-person relationships and time spent outdoors. 

Nature-Deficit Disorder

An often overlooked factor that may be contributing to how many teens have depression overall in modern societies is a disconnect from nature. And young people, who spend more time than other demographics on their phones, may be particularly susceptible. A 2005 book by journalist Richard Louv identifies what he calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder” as a condition plaguing citizens of the modern world, particularly those who live in urban areas. And scholars have begun to take the concept more seriously.

A 2105 study found that participants in a wilderness youth camp had improved well-being on all measures, including: perceived stress, relaxation, positive and negative emotions, sense of wholeness, and transcendence. Dr. Ming Kuo, a researcher at the University of Illinois, says access to green spaces by urban kids decreases aggressive behaviors and symptoms of ADHD—and she points out that access to green spaces is unequal across socioeconomic and racial lines. Wealthier neighborhoods are much more likely to have green spaces.

Parenting Methods

Finally, some experts cite modern approaches to parenting as a factor contributing to how many teens have depression and less resilient young people overall. While it’s widely acknowledged that parents are largely acting out of love, some of the recent trends in child-rearing may be creating fragile teens and young adults. Factors include:

  • Decreased opportunity to develop competence: Teens today are less likely than those in the past to drive, have summer jobs, and do household chores. These activities all contribute to a sense of competence and resilience.
  • Heightened anxiety projected by anxious parents: Negative news cycles are contributing to an increasingly anxious population overall. Parents who feel excessively fearful about the world due to this constant exposure may become anxiously overprotective of their children, passing on those fears. 
  • Over-accommodation increases fragility: It’s more common today for parents to accommodate their children to the point where they could be depriving them of the opportunity to develop courage and resilience. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, rather than help the child confront and overcome that fear, the parent may shelter them so they never have to encounter dogs and deal with that discomfort.

All of the above may be contributing to an increase in separation anxiety, social anxieties, and phobias that make young people feel unequipped to deal with the challenges of the world.

How Many Teens Have Depression & Why Is It Happening?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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