CEO: The Public Health Crisis Impacting our Teens

Mar 5, 2018, 12:38 PM by Chris Coker

We have watched a lot in the news recently about the “opioid crisis.” I by no means want to downplay this as an issue. It is horrible, and it deserves the attention it is getting.

But here is a public health crisis that is not getting the attention it deserves and needs: teen anxiety/panic/phobias. In my opinion, it eclipses the opioid crises in volume.

Only 8% of my generation (I am 54) reported suffering from panic/phobias/anxiety as teens. Based on what study you read, as many as 40% of my kids' generation (they are ages 22, 20 and 14) report suffering from panic/phobias/anxiety (Numbers on issues like this are hard to obtain accurately due to their nature).

Is teen mental health something to worry about? 

Yup, big time. So big that the chancellor at CU recently said it was one of his biggest concerns for the students. 

If we look at the teen suicide rate, according to the CDC, we see that it dropped to approximately 10 per 100,000 between the '80s and 2000. Since 2000, it has grown to 13 per 100,000 with girls ages 10-14 having the highest risk. Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death for that age group, and a prevalent pre-indicator of teen suicide is panic/phobias/anxiety. So, if your teen is having issues then they are at higher risk for harming themselves.

Very depressing stuff, but as a YMCA, as a community and as parents, we all need to understand why this is happening.

There is never an easy solution that we can use to fix an issue of this magnitude. However, we can look at the leading causes and address them to take the top off of these numbers. Don’t look for a governmental solution. This is a community issue that must be addressed one neighborhood, one school, one town, one kid at a time.

Some of the culprits that peer-reviewed data has identified are as follows. 

• Girls are going into puberty at an earlier age due to the ingestion of hormones in food and other environmental factors. Puberty is turbulent at best, and doing so at a younger age means that the teen has fewer emotional resources to help deal with these changes. Watch the foods you are giving your kids and try to stay away from products that have hormones imbedded in the source material. When your child does enter puberty know that they may need some extra support from you, a family friend or a professional. Take the time to contextualize issues for your kids. Remember, to them every crisis at this age is the first time they have experienced it, so they do not have the capability to solve their issues in a mature manner. You must help them through it, and they will be secretive. Dig that information out of them. If they seem “off,” they are. Find out why. Also, moms and dads can get different information from their kids. Children are selective in what they share with each parent or significant adult in their life. It's OK to address your kids' issues as a team. Do not sequester information from each other. Use every resource you have!

• Teen self-identification only centering around school grades. We put a lot of stress on grades, and when that is the primary focus, a bad grade can be devastating. Once again, kids have no context. Help teach them “self-talk” to put school into the proper perspective. Additionally, very few kids will advocate for themselves. You should not do it for them (land the helicopter), but you should push them to do it for themselves. They need to talk to the teachers, they need to decide how to get extra credit. Walk them through the process, and check on the process. Here is a crazy thing that helps: When you have to call an 800 number for help with your TV or internet, have them do it. They are as technically savvy as you are, but the lessons learned here helps to train them, and it is very low stakes. 

• Additionally, the stress of worrying about school can be overwhelming with the incredible schedules that we have our kids on. The reality is that school is harder now than it was for our generation, and teens have always lived in the moment. When something goes wrong, they see no way forward because they lack perspective. Perspective is gained by wisdom and time. Once again, help them understand that they are not alone. They are feeling what teens have felt for generations, and they are not strange or anomalous, they are normal. Talk to them about their friends and how they treat each other. If they are lonely or feel left out, point them to groups, help them plan a party or event. Help them to learn to be assertive. Friendships take work, and kids don’t realize that. 

• Another issue is lack of resilience. Our helicopter generation of parenting has taught every child that they are special and unique. I hate to break it to you, but nope, they are not. When our kids find out they are not the best at something and when life stops giving them participation trophies, they hit an emotional brick wall. They don’t know how to handle failing because they have never experienced it before. We keep them as children for too long, infantilizing them. Have your kids do sports and other activities where there are winners and losers and skill building. Let them learn how to fail with good sportsmanship and win with grace and learn they must practice and build skill to succeed. When they are down and in a dark place because of a bad grade, a lost friendship or losing a game help them to decide how to do better. This is the time for a pep talk. Help them see how they are in charge of their lives and can make a difference. Speak to what works for them, use references that they can understand. Do they need to hear about Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Bilbo Baggins or Captain Kirk? Pull out all the stops, but help them to understand that to improve they must first fail, and then get up and try again. This is the essence of resilience, and we have not been good at passing it along to our kids. 

• One of the biggest issues for this generation of teens is social media. Social media is a giant fake. Kids do not have the mental resources and time on the planet to distinguish reality from staged pictures. Social media makes it look like everyone has a better life, is prettier or more rugged, has more friends, has more love in their life, and is having more fun than you. And we are all disgusted by cyber trolls who hammer our kids online. You must be involved and give them the tools to mentally fight this, because there is no successful way to fight it online. How is a young person supposed to fight an invisible foe alone? Worst case scenario, they turn their anger inward and hurt themselves or they turn it outward and hurt innocent people. This is new; they are the first generation to battle this foe. However, the feelings are normal, and we know how they feel. Take the time to point out the staged photos vs. the real ones. Show them how you can make even the worst party seem like a rager (is that even a good word anymore?). 

Ultimately, anxiety is not a bad thing. It has its foundations in our fight or flight reflex that kept our ancestors alive. It helped us reach the 7 billion humans on the planet mark, but teens are having a harder and harder time putting their anxiety into perspective. Is this sabertooth tiger fear level or daddy long legs level fear? Too many kids cannot put their own challenges into perspective, and that is where they get into very real trouble. Once again, context. Help them understand that a bad grade, mean friend, lost game, not making the squad and so on are not bad things. It may be the best thing ever, it may be the impetus to do better!

Sooooo… Take a kid who has been told they are special their whole life and has a whole wall of participation awards (so they never buckled down and worked for excellence), give them a tough teacher, show them other kids on social media whose lives appear better, don’t require them to do chores or have a “kid job,” and then fail to create an atmosphere where they develop a proper amount of resilience, and what do you have? You have a big problem. And at the same time, we all wring our hands and say that we gave them everything and ask, Why are they like this, why are they so sad?

Here are some recommendations. When your child shows signs of anxiety, absolutely do not dismiss it. Talk to them about their fears and give them the tools to put their issues into perspective. Role model good coping skills by telling them when you are anxious about something and how you are dealing with it. Join social media with them and monitor their accounts. Once again, give them perspective on what they are seeing. But most importantly, take the phone away at set times each night and force them to do other things, such as read, walk the dog with you, or do some other type of family activity. This is hard work, shoot for a couple of nights a week, but be firm every night about the phone.

Let them fail, and let them fail spectacularly. Then show them that life goes on and no one (really) cares that they failed. They care about them, not their grades or what team they are on. Help them decide what actually defines them. Show them you aren’t judging them and love them as much as ever. Then have the conversation that if they didn’t like how they did then they may wish to practice more, study more, etc. Hold them accountable for their grades, but don’t make that the most important thing in their life. A bad grade is not the end of their life. It may actually be the best thing that ever happened — to teach them consequences. I have a really good job, and no one ever asked my GPA.

Remember, this is an epidemic we need to worry about. Take it seriously and dial into your kid's emotional state. Let's be honest, they are masters at hiding things. They will shade the truth and omit certain things from you. By high school you are not the most important person in their life, and they are pulling away. They have a hidden life that you need to peer into.


Thank You, 
Chris Coker 
CEO/President of YMCA of Boulder Valley