Shining a Light on American Teenagers Today

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Filtered Instagram photos, emojis galore, and a steady stream of likes, comments, and share can’t hide the truth of what it’s really like to be an American teenager today. A study of national trends of depression found a substantial increase in major depressive episodes, or MDEs, among teens and young adults ages 12 to 20 from 2005 to 2014 – from 8.4% to 11.5%. Of course, teens are ruled by hormones, struggle under the weight of greater responsibilities, and feel the heat from peer pressure. However, this increase in MDEs suggests other factors are making an impact.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Wake Forest University’s Online Master’s in Counseling and Human Services program.

How counselors can help teenagers battle depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

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More Than Just a Troubled Teen

The prevalence of depression, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide may be more real than the photos posted by teens on social media.


In 2014, 11.3% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 had a prevalence of major depressive episodes (MDEs). This figure was up from 8.7% in 2005. The increase in MDEs among young adults 18 – 25 went from 8.8% to 9.6% within the same timeframe. There was also a statistically significant jump in MDEs in the 12- to 20-year age range.

In 2015, a Time Magazine article reported more than 3 million adolescents ages 12 – 17 reported at least one major depressive episode in the previous year. It also reported more than 2 million reported severe depression that impeded daily functioning.

The rates of depression are higher among girls than boys. In 2015, 19.5% of girls had a major depression occurrence, compared with just 5.8% of boys. Cyberbullying may play a key role into this; it’s more common among girls than boys, which may correlate to girls’ tendency to text and use their mobile phones more intensively and frequently.

Self-Harm and Suicide

Visit to emergency departments for non-fatal, self-inflicted injuries among children and young adults jumped by 5.7% per year from 2008 to 2015. Self-inflicted injuries among girls ages 10 – 14 increased by 18.8% from 2009 to 2015.

44,965 Americans die by suicide every year – 123 per day. For every suicide, there are 25 attempts. Additionally, suicide costs the U.S. $69 billion every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports suicide as the third-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds.

A Look Behind the Social Media Profile

Behind the carefully curated social media profile may exist a teen suffering from depression, inflicting self-harm, or having suicidal thoughts.

Studies indicate a possible correlation between smartphone usage and depression and attempted suicide. Those that spend 5 or more hours on their phones daily increased from 8% in 2009 to 19% in 2015. The percentage of those that reported feelings of depression, planning suicide, or attempting suicide jumped from 32% to 36% during that same time frame.

Studies also indicated a connection with social media access and depression. Daily social media usage jumped from 58% to 87% from 2009 to 2015, and it was determined that more frequent usage made teens 14% more likely to be depressed.

The potential reasons for these findings may include their capacity to take time away from teens’ engaging in traditional behaviors. These may include exercise, doing homework, reading print media, playing sports, attending religious services, sleep, and in-person social interactions.


Cyberbullying can manifest in many forms. Using e-mail or social media to post threats and hurtful messages, sexting, online rumor spreading, identity impersonation, and photo shaming are all forms of cyberbullying.

15.5% of high school students have been bullied online, and this percentage jumps to 24% among middle-schoolers. 40% – 50% of cyberbullying victims know the perpetrator’s identity. However, most teens don’t tell their parents about cyberbullying incidents. This is troublesome, since cyberbullying victims are more likely to have low self-esteem and consider suicide.

Accepting Support and Treatment

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends young people ages 11 through 21 obtain a depression screening, particularly since physicians, parents, and teachers don’t always recognize signs of depression. Licensed professional counselors play a crucial role supporting and treating teens.

They may support teens struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts in many ways, including “talk therapies” like counseling, monitoring medication compliance, medial appointment maintenance aid, and creating support networks. They may also deploy one or a combination of options to help treat the causes behind suicidal thoughts or self-harm if there’s no imminent risk. These can include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, mindfulness practices, or interpersonal psychotherapy. Additionally, they can educate clients on the physiology of emotions.

To deploy these services at a high level, counselors must have the skills to recognize risk factors and warning signs. They should also use their skills in active listening, empathy, and validation and be wary of using an evaluation as if it’s a checklist. Finally, they should work in teams with researchers to test intervention models.


It’s time to remove the shiny façade of a social media profile and face the uncomfortable truth of mental illness amongst teens. It may be tough for parents and teachers to recognize the signs of teenager depression, but counselors are well-equipped to conduct thorough assessments and develop treatment plans. The next most liked post on social media should be one telling the story of recovery – one that can be told with the help of a licensed professional counselor.