Some Teens Are Depressed for a Reason. Many Are Victims of Domestic Abuse.

Given the extensive links between abuse and crime, family abuses are a critical issue in the justice system. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control’s survey on “teenage mental health” released on April 2 should be of critical importance.

The CDC’s latest study—instead of pointlessly cataloguing self-reported youthful behaviors in alarmed tones (yes, certain proportions of teenagers do drugs, drink, smoke, tote guns, get depressed, etc., corresponding to the grownups around them…what a shock)—actually asked some crucial contextual questions.

In particular, the CDC asked teens, how often did “a parent or other adult in your home swear at you, insult you, or put you down” or “hit, beat, kick, or physically hurt you in any way.” These are standard definitions of abuse.

That yielded findings that are beyond shocking, even though the CDC itself and major-media reports either failed to comprehend their significance or found them too unsettling to engage. So, most took the easy route: stigmatize the least powerful entity and call for fixing “them.”

“Adolescents are experiencing a mental health crisis,” the CDC clarioned. “A steep decline in teen mental health… with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting that they feel ‘persistently sad or hopeless,’ and 1 in 5 saying they have contemplated suicide,” The Washington Post trumpeted, typical of most media. The New York Times article was even worse, failing to mention the abuse finding at all while recycling century-old notions of the adolescent brain being warped by modern society to explain the “life or death…mental health crisis among U.S. teens.”

No! What this survey reveals are perfectly normal, healthy teenage reactions to the abysmal conditions they’re being subjected to by adults. Reacting negatively to bad conditions is sanity, not mental illness.

The only honest journalism I could find was by ABC Action News’ Tatiana Salazar, headlined:New CDC data shows many teens have been emotionally abused by parents.” Salazar continued:More than 55% of high school students said they suffered emotional abuse from a parent, guardian or other adult in their house in 2021. More than 11% said they suffered physical abuse.” In 2013, just “14% of students said they were emotionally abused by their parents” and “5.5% reported physical abuse.”

This sharp rise in reported abuse inflicted by household adults mirrors the increase in teens who reported having “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” which rose from 26% a decade ago to 44% in 2021.

Further, the CDC and media commentators characterized the finding that “those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning (LGBQ) are experiencing disproportionate levels of poor mental health and suicide-related behaviors” as “teenage mental health” problems. Nearly four times more LGBQ youth reported suicidal thoughts compared to non-LGBQ youth. LGBQ youth are more depressed, maybe it’s because “lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were far more likely to report physical abuse, with 20% reporting that they had been physically abused by a parent or other adult in their home.”

The figures youth report for parental abuses are considerably higher than those youth report for bullying by peers, even though the official definition of bullying (which goes beyond hitting and name-calling to include teasing, spreading rumors, excluding from groups, damaging property, etc.) is much broader than the CDC’s definition of parental abuse (defined above). Nor did the CDC ask about physical and emotional abuse inflicted by teachers, coaches, vice principals, employers, and other non-parent adults.

While the CDC report was blunt in categorizing adolescents as mentally troubled, neither the report, quoted authorities, nor the media reports I listened to or read would label the grownups who are swearing at, bullying, hitting, kicking and beating youth as the ones who are truly troubled. This phenomenon parallels the silence of authorities on the much steeper, 30-year rise in rates of middle-aged (the age group parenting teens) adults’ criminal arrest, imprisonment, suicide, gun killings and drug- and alcohol-related deaths. Rather, all entities vaguely blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for these ills, while other commentators dubiously scapegoated “toxic” schools and, in past articles, younger-generation technologies like cell phones and cyber-interactions.

COVID-19 put severe stresses on families. But the pandemic – like increasing drug abuse, gun violence, crime and suicidal difficulties among grownups – are not excuses for parents violently and emotionally abusing teenagers and children. 

Nor is blaming the pandemic, schools, and peer interactions an excuse for those in charge to ignore those abuses while targeting youths for corrective treatment, a recommendation that comes dangerously close to positing counseling as a mechanism for making youths adjust to abusive conditions.

Although the CDC report recommended “comprehensive strategies that improve connections with others at home, in the community, and at school,” nowhere did it suggest mental health strategies aimed at abusive grownups. The recommendations for more counseling targeting students fail to note that helping victims of abuse recover is a very different issue than the intensive parent and family interventions needed to redirect abusers.

Tens of millions of American grownups and leaders of major institutions are severely troubled, inflicting high rates of poverty, lack of necessities (one-third of Black students reported “there was not enough food in their home during the pandemic”), unnecessary medication, arbitrary restrictions, and increasing abuses on young people.

The extremely disturbing practice of adults in powerwhether in churches, civic organizations like the Boy Scouts, educational institutions from school boards to universities, sports entities led by the U.S. Olympic Committee, youth-serving organizations, police agencies, juvenile facilities, families, and other groupscovering up abuses of children and youth in their charge, leaving them exposed to dangers, defending and hiding abusers, and denying responsibility appears to be near-universal. Many years often pass before abuses are redressed, and then only partially and sporadically. What is wrong with the thinking of grownups entrusted with power over the young?

Teenagers are not crazy to find adult attitudes, practices, and behaviors depressing. The institutional authorities, media reporters, health experts, and politicians in charge need to own up to their own issues and expand proactive solutions for teens and their families.

Despite solid links between family abuses and crime and the overwhelming percentage of youths in the justice system who suffered parent- and caretaker-inflicted abuses, today’s younger generation seems to be resisting more criminal arrests through 2020. Special interests clamoring for unwarranted credit are interfering with reasoned analysis. We don’t begin to understand why crime by youth is plummeting, but one factor we should be addressing rather than stigmatizing is young people’s healthy reactions against bad conditions imposed on them.