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Why are teens suffering, and what can be done about their mental health?

Why are teens suffering, and what can be done about their mental health?

Picture of Gisela Telis

In the U.S. in 2014, an estimated 2.8 million adolescents aged 12-17 had at least one episode of major depression. Just over one in five 13- to 18-year-olds has a seriously debilitating mental illness of any kind. Less than half report receiving any treatment, but nearly 17 percent say they have thought seriously about killing themselves.

These statistics, sourced from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illustrate the widespread and growing mental health crisis among teens and youth.

I’ve been reporting almost exclusively on mental health since my Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism in 2011. In that time, I’ve met many people touched by this crisis: the suicide prevention specialist based in Phoenix whose office is overwhelmed by calls and visits from parents desperate to find help for their children. The young Native woman who bravely made her way through an addiction treatment program in Tucson, only to take her own life once she returned home to her reservation. The bereft mother waging war to bring mental health care to her rural community. They are witnesses to and casualties of what one former school counselor described to me as an epidemic of trauma, loss and pain.

Young people are suffering in unprecedented numbers, and that’s a problem that deserves dedicated, thorough and sensitive investigation.

My project for the 2016 National Fellowship will explore the personal, biological, social and economic factors that shape mental health and illness among young people. It will result in a 60- to 90-minute documentary and a series of shorter “mini-documentaries” to be produced and aired as we craft the longer-form piece. The project will also include a community engagement component designed to educate the public about the mental health issues affecting young people and to connect those in need with critical resources.

My project will feature interviews with health care providers, educators, mental health researchers, and policymakers — all the folks who can help unravel the scope of this crisis and speak to its causes and potential solutions. But its most powerful voices will be those of teens themselves. I plan to follow several young people and their families as they navigate the mental health care system, to chronicle their struggles and successes as they seek their own way to wellness.

[Photo by martinak15 via Flickr.]


The nation’s overdose epidemic has entered a devastating new phase. Drugs laced with fentanyl and even more poisonous synthetics have flooded the streets, as the crisis spreads well beyond the rural, largely white communities that initially drew attention. The death rate is escalating twice as fast among Black people than among white people. This webinar will give journalists deep insights, fresh story ideas and practical tips for covering an epidemic that killed more than 107,000 people in the U.S. last year. Sign-up here!


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