Youths nationwide are struggling with their mental health at rates higher than previous generations. Oregon has the highest rate of youth depressive episodes in the country, and rates of depression - alongside anxiety and self-harm - are trending upward. 

Many of those kids can’t get the help they need before it’s too late—the youth suicide rate has been trending upward nationally for some time, and Oregon’s rate regularly surpasses the national average.  

Local statistics reinforce this picture. Both hospitals in the Salem Health network—Salem Hospital and West Valley Hospital in Dallas—saw increasing rates of people ages 9 to 24 coming to the emergency room for anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in the past three years.  

What’s contributing to these trends? Kids say they are more stressed than ever. Between academic pressure that pushes kids to prioritize grades above all else, the fear of growing up in a country dogged by everything from mass shootings to climate change and the power of social media to act as an amplifier to these pressures and fears–kids are bombarded from all sides. 

Academics 

Lauren McMann, a 2018 Sprague graduate, knows how school can push kids to their limits. She felt the pressure to take as many advanced placement classes as possible, maintain a high grade point average, volunteer, and do all the things kids are supposed to do to improve their college and career prospects.  

She maintained a straight-A GPA until her junior year. Between too many advanced courses, softball and volunteering, her schedule overwhelmed her. “I just piled everything on and then the house of cards fell,” she said.  

Students typically take eight classes, and keeping up with coursework can become even more stressful when students take a lot of advanced placement and dual enrollment college classes. The problem is, it’s not just academics. The pressure for students to present “well-rounded” college applications leads to pressure to pile on sports, volunteering and jobs on top of school work. And there’s often not flexibility from teachers or other players in students’ lives. “They don’t understand that you have other things going on,” she said.  

These pressures had an isolating effect, McMann said. In hindsight, she wished she had prioritized what was most important to her and taken more time to spend with friends while in high school.  

For McMann, the outcome would’ve been the same—the admissions requirements to the school she decided fit her needs best, University of Hawaii, aren’t nearly as rigorous as she anticipated.  

“I’ll be in Hawaii, living where I want to live, it’s going to be super nice. The nursing school is great,” she said. But, she added, she could’ve been admitted with a 2.0.  

She describes the stress she went through in high school as a “learning experience.” She made it through all right, she said, but she’s seen people in her life–her own family–with similar ambitions pushed over the edge.  

McMann’s brother, Ben, died by suicide at the beginning of her senior year. No one knows exactly what led to Ben’s death—his parents and his sister say he didn’t tell anyone close to him he was suicidal prior to acting on it—but his family says Ben was stressed by the new workload of his freshman year of high school. His death, followed by the death of another Sprague student a few weeks later last September, resulted in a reckoning at the school.

 Other youth echo the same message: kids are pushed to their limits and expected to constantly achieve, and then top their achievements. But failure happens and, when it does, our academic system doesn’t give students the space to get back up and figure it out.  

Ben and Lauren’s parents, Carol and Kyle McMann, said they’ve witnessed this broader culture of pushing kids to the limit. 

Carol sees society as teaching kids life is an uphill climb, when really it’s more complicated than that.  

“I think we need to teach them that life’s a roller coaster,” Carol said. “You’re going to have your ups, you’re going to have your downs. And that’s life. That’s okay.” 

She added: “You can plan things, but that’s not how life goes.”  

Academics are framed as ascendant—students are expected to improve performance throughout an academic career, volunteer, show they are “well-rounded” individuals, so they can continue the ascent into a prestigious school and then, from there, onto a high-flying career. The picture painted for kids depicts a continuous march upward, paved with their blood, sweat and tears.  

But that’s not healthy or sustainable, especially when paired with stressors that are even further outside of kids’ control.  

EXISTENTIAL STRESS

Emily Bogan, an incoming junior at McNary High School, plans on going back to school shopping. On her list: a bulletproof backpack. 

She reads the headlines about school shootings, and they scare her. And there’s an added element of fear, she said, because McNary is under construction this year, and many classrooms have been moved to temporary portables on the campus.  

“It’s just stressful to go to school, because … we’ll be out in portables and most of the time they don’t lock portables,” she said. “You just open the door and you’re in class, which could be catastrophic if something happened.” 

In addition to the mass shootings that make national headlines, she referenced a few weeks of unusually violent headlines coming out of Salem. It makes her wonder: “What is this world coming to?” 

Young people are growing up in an unstable political moment. Mass shootings dominate the news cycle, rates of hate crimes are increasing, climate change experts have a 10-year countdown on the Earth’s habitable lifespan. 

Clinicians say kids are paying attention. And it’s impacting their mental health.  

School-based mental health professionals have noticed this shift. Students used to come in with more individual problems, but now raise questions like, “What are the adults doing with my world?” in response to violence and political turmoil. 

The impact can be even greater on students of color, particularly Latino students. The El Paso shooting, which killed 22 people in a Walmart in early August, has been called a hate crime based on racist statements made by the shooter prior to the mass killing. 

Juanita Aniceto is a peer support specialist at Salem Drop, a community center designed as a place for young people to connect with each other and with adults trained to help them work through their problems.  

 “I don’t think I have had kids that haven’t struggled with some kind of mental health history,” she said.  

But Aniceto said in addition to the national headlines that seem indiscriminate in their targets, there’s an added layer for students from immigrant families. She said there’s several young adults who come to the Salem Drop who are concerned about their legal status or the legal status of their families. One of these students was separated from their family, she said, adding another layer of stress to adolescence. 

Kids are not as insulated from the world as the adults might think they are. And even when the adults try to shield kids from the world, social media keeps them immersed in the bad news. 

 SOCIAL MEDIA

Aside from a vehicle for bad news, social media also can have an isolating effect on youth.  

Mikki Krause, a 2018 Sprague grad, has seen her friends get stressed out while scrolling through Instagram. The constant barrage of images send a clear message: so many people are thinner, more fashionably dressed, more popular. And the negative messages aren’t just subliminal; outright cyberbullying is common as well.  

“A lot of people are mean behind the screen,” Krause said.  

The problem Krause describes is one that’s echoed among parents and clinicians. At the Salem Health-sponsored listening sessions held at all Salem-Keizer high schools during the last school year - a response to the Sprague suicide cluster – social media came up at every session. Parents and school staff frequently voiced their fears about the impact it’s having on youth. 

“It was consistent across all the listening sessions, to the point where we had to say at the beginning of the last few listening sessions, we know social media is something that concerns you, so we’re going to talk about it briefly and then move on,” said Leilani Slama, vice president of community engagement for Salem Health.  

But dealing with social media’s impact on kids is more complicated than taking away their phones, experts say.  

Nick Allen is a mental health clinician and researcher. He also directs University of Oregon’s Center for Digital Mental Health, which seeks to utilize technological solutions to addressing mental health.  

The vilification of “screentime” is not productive, he said. It stems from the generation gap between adults raised before the days of social media and the kids born into it.  

Allen said social media and screentime should be approached like driving. We “understand there are both opportunities and risks” to driving, he said, but we teach kids how to utilize the opportunity and mitigate the risk with education and adult support. Technology and social media shouldn’t be any different, he said. 

He also added scapegoating social media as the sole problem in kids’ lives doesn’t deal with the root issue. Kids who struggle with feelings of isolation and inadequacy find themselves struggling as much in real life as online. If the IRL need isn’t addressed, the online need won’t go away, either, he said.  

Despite adult concerns, kids find many benefits to being online. Marginalized kids especially—Allen cites the example of LGBTQ+ youth—“can go online and find a community of people who can understand you,” he said.  

Experts like Allen and the kids themselves see a missed opportunity in conversations about social media and mental health. Krause, who struggled with anxiety and depression herself, found positive spaces to talk about mental health online, but adults don’t often see the opportunity to build upon those spaces.  

“Social media—if we use it properly—can open up a conversation about it,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”  

Come back next week to learn how Salem-Keizer Public Schools is beginning to address youth mental health concerns.

Reporter Casey Chaffin, spent three months working on this issue at The Oregonian and the Keizertimes, including traveling to Minnesota to see how teen mental health services work in a state that is more highly rated in its treatment efforts. You can read her Oregonian/Oregonlive coverage here.