Teen Girls Report Record Levels of Sadness, Sexual Violence: CDC

Lucy Hicks

February 13, 2023

Teenage girls are experiencing record high levels of sexual violence, and nearly 3 in 5 girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless, according to a new report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nearly 70% of teens who identified as lesbian, bisexual, gay, or questioning (LGBQ+) report experiencing feelings of persistent sadness and hopeless, and nearly 1 in 4 (22%) LGBQ+ had attempted suicide in 2021, according to the report.

"High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive," said Debra Houry, MD, MPH, the CDC's acting principal deputy director, in a press release about the findings.

The new analysis looked at data from 2011-2021 from the CDC's Youth Risk and Behavior Survey (YRBS), a semi-annual analysis of the health behaviors of students in grades 9-12. The 2021 survey is the first YRBS conducted since the COVID-19 pandemic began and included 17,232 respondents.  

Although the researchers saw signs of improvement in risky sexual behaviors and substance abuse, as well as fewer experiences of bullying, the analysis found youth mental health worsened over the past 10 years. This trend was particularly troubling for teenage girls: 57% said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, a 60% increase from a decade ago. By comparison, 29% of teenage boys reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, compared to 21% in 2011.

Nearly one third of girls (30%) reported seriously considering suicide, up from 19% in 2011. In teenage boys, serious thoughts of suicide increased from 13% to 14% from 2011 to 2021. The percentage of teenage girls who had attempted suicide in 2021 was 13%, nearly twice that of teenage boys (7%).

More than half of students with a same sex partner (58%) reported seriously considering suicide, and 45% of LGBQ+ teens reported the same thoughts. One third of students with a same sex partner reported attempting suicide in the past year.

The report did not have trend data on LGBQ+ students because of changes in survey methods. The 2021 survey did not have a question accessing gender identity, but this will be incorporated into future surveys, according to the researchers.

Hispanic and multiracial students were more likely to experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared with their peers, with 46% and 49%, respectively, reporting these feelings. From 2011-2021, the percentage of students reporting feelings of hopelessness increased in each racial and ethnic group. The percentage of Black, Hispanic, and White teens who seriously considered suicide also increased over the decade. (A different report released by the CDC last week found that the rate of suicide among Blacks in the United States aged 10-24 jumped 36.6% between 2018 and 2021, the largest increase for any racial or ethnic group.)

The survey also found an alarming spike in sexual violence toward teenage girls. Nearly 1 in 5 females (18%) experienced sexual violence in the past year, a 20% increase from 2017. More than 1 in 10 teen girls (14%) said they had been forced to have sex, according to the researchers.

Rates of sexual violence was even higher in lesbian, bisexual, gay, or questioning teens. Nearly 2 in 5 teens with a partner of the same sex (39%) experienced sexual violence, and 37% reported being sexually assaulted. More than 1 in 5 LGBQ+ teens (22%) had experienced sexual violence, and 20% said they had been forced to have sex, the report found.

Among racial and ethnic groups, American Indian and Alaskan Native and multiracial students were more likely to experience sexual violence. The percentage of White students reporting sexual violence increased from 2017 to 2021, but that trend was not observed in other racial and ethnic groups.

Delaney Ruston, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Seattle and creator of "Screenagers," a 2016 documentary about how technology affects youth, said excessive exposure to social media can compound feelings of depression in teens — particularly, but not only, girls. "They can scroll and consume media for hours, and rather than do activities and have interactions that would help heal from depression symptoms, they stay stuck," Ruston told Medscape Medical News. "As a primary care physician working with teens, this is an extremely common problem I see in my clinic."

One approach that can help, Ruston added, is behavioral activation. "This is a strategy where you get them, usually with the support of other people, to do small activities that help to reset brain reward pathways so they start to experience doses of well-being and hope that eventually reverses the depression. Being stuck on screens prevents these healing actions from happening."

The report also emphasized the importance of school-based services to support students and combat these troubling trends in worsening mental health. "Schools are the gateway to needed services for many young people," the report stated. "Schools can provide health, behavioral, and mental health services directly or establish referral systems to connect to community sources of care."

"Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion," added Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, in a statement. "With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish."

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