"There’s no question young people are telling us they are...

"There’s no question young people are telling us they are in crisis," a CDC official said. Some experts attributed the rise in mental health problems to the widespread use of smartphones and social media. Credit: Getty Images/Yiu Yu Hoi

Nearly 3 in 5 teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, while 1 in 3 seriously considered attempting suicide, according to a new CDC report that experts said mirrored trends on Long Island.

The survey of 17,000 teenagers across the country by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the feelings of sadness among girls was double that of boys.

The CDC conducts the survey every two years, and said rates of mental health problems among young people have gone up with every report since 2011.

Experts on Long Island attributed that to various factors including the pandemic, but some focused on the rise of the smartphone and the constant access it gives children to social media.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nearly 3 in 5 teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, while 1 in 3 seriously considered attempting suicide, a new CDC survey says.

  • Experts said that mirrored trends on Long Island, where they say finding mental health counselors is extremely difficult.

  • One expert blamed smartphones and social media for much of the distress young people are feeling.

Dr. Victor Fornari, the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health, said the declining mental health of teenagers and younger children parallels the widespread use of smartphones.

“We really do see an association timewise with the smartphone in every teenager’s hand in the past decade and the dramatic increase in this degree of depression and suicidal ideation amongst youth,” he told Newsday.

Dr. Victor Fornari, the vice chair of child and adolescent...

Dr. Victor Fornari, the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health, said the declining mental health of teenagers and younger children parallels the widespread use of smartphones. Seen here in his office in 2020. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

At Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, where he practices, the number of adolescents coming to the emergency room for suicidal thoughts or attempts has soared in the past four decades, he said.

In 1982 the figure was 250. By 2010, it increased to 3,000. By 2022, it was about 8,000, he said.

Experts also cited other causes of the deteriorating mental health of young people, including pandemic-era isolation, the pressures of re-entry to “normal” life at school, growing drug use, fear of mass shootings, and a lack of therapists and mental health counselors.

Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s adolescent and school health division, said that in 30 years of collecting similar data, “we’ve never seen this kind of devastating, consistent findings. There’s no question young people are telling us they are in crisis. The data really call on us to act.”

Jeffrey Friedman, CEO of the nonprofit Central Nassau Guidance & Counseling Services in Hicksville, said his agency has seen an increase in young people and especially girls coming to them for help during the pandemic.

He said that by the time they arrive, many are “very close to the end of their rope” because it is so difficult for their parents to find mental health counselors.

“It’s really hard to navigate the mental health system,” he said. “So when you need to find a child psychiatrist on Long Island, it’s almost impossible. There are very few, and many don’t take insurance. And so parents and families feel alone, that there’s no help out there.”

Monique Barragan, a licensed mental health counselor at the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Nassau County, said the pandemic increased isolation and anxiety among young people. But transitioning back to regular classes has also created mental health challenges.

“It’s almost like a shock,” she said. When they were under lockdown at home, “they didn’t really have to think about other people judging them.”

The nonprofit Family Service League, which works mainly in Suffolk County, said it responded to seven suicides of young people and young adults in 2022, and to four already this year.

The number of school districts requesting anti-suicide programs increased from three in 2021 to six in 2022, said Kathy Rosenthal, the group’s senior vice president.

Fornari, of Northwell, said society needs to find a way to prevent smartphones from undermining children’s mental health.

“How many times an hour do they check their texts, their emails, and WhatsApp, their social media sites?” he said.

“In conversations with kids you’ll hear about all of the ways in which they feel slighted, insulted, angry, attacked by being excluded from an event, or betrayed by a friend,” he said. “It goes on all day long to the point in which they are so distracted that they can’t even focus on anything else.”

“There are clearly many advantages and many benefits from social media but there is also a dark side,” he said, “and I think the mental health crisis in youths is part of the dark side.”

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