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Why Is Our Children’s Mental Health Getting Worse?

Research suggests we need to look deeper at children's sources of stress.

Key points

  • Children’s declining mental health seemingly contradicts improved social indicators that should protect kids.
  • Researchers don’t know why kids' mental health is sliding; social media and climate anxiety may be a reason.
  • Kids need adults to make the world a more predictable place if they are to be optimistic about the future.

What the heck is going on? Since 2010, we’ve seen dramatic increases in rates of mental health disorders among our kids, including depression, anxiety, and suicide. And yet, we’ve also, in that time, been focusing on better treatment and improving the social determinants of health, like early childhood education, addressing child hunger, offering extra support to children in school, and making some strides with regard to community safety and stable housing. Far, far from perfect, and forever under threat from cuts to social programs, these efforts to shape a better world around our kids should be returning mental health dividends. And yet, the strange thing is that while social indicators are improving, American children, whether Black, Latinx, or White, are reporting decreasing rates of mental health.

I was intrigued to see this trend described in detail by Nathaniel Anderson and his colleagues in an article published in Child Trends earlier this month. Based on a longer paper in the Millbank Quarterly, Anderson and colleagues admit to being just as confused as the rest of us by this pattern. Using data from different indices of child well-being, they found that regardless of a child’s racial background, children are showing signs of more stress and more disorder. This is awful news for those of us concerned with children’s resilience, but it is also a wake-up call to think more systemically. Obviously, we are not measuring something (or many things) that are important to kids and stressing them out.

For example, how much is the climate emergency affecting our kids? How much are they worried about a world that appears to be now a long series of floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados, and droughts? What does it do to children’s sense of optimism and self-confidence when they see the adults around them bickering over where to put a wind farm when the world is looking like a post-apocalyptic zombie movie?

But is our children’s anxiety just about the changing climate? There is plenty of reason to see in the data a strange coincidence: the spike in mental health disorders occurring at the same time that social media use became rampant. How exactly do endless screen time, social comparisons, and fear of missing out (FOMO) disturb children’s sleep patterns and psychosocial development? How is the increase in child social isolation and loneliness exacerbating their already fragile developmental pathways?

Or could declining mental health among children be, as Anderson and colleagues speculate, also a reflection of our children being the “canaries in the mine” for a society that has the highest incarceration rates in the world (without decreasing crime), opioid addictions by caregivers, the after-effects of economic instability following the Great Recession, and changing parenting practices that have made children into over-protected marshmallows who are told that every challenge is traumatizing? (I recently worked with a parent who described their child’s change from elementary to middle school as traumatizing because the child was having to adjust to new routines and expectations.)

It’s difficult to know what is going on, but clearly, we need to rethink the world we are exposing our children to. We need to offer them better filters and a more hopeful message about the future. We need also to remind them that they are not vulnerable and have the capacity to adapt when necessary. They need predictability, but they also need the adults in their lives to model for them competent, caring behaviors rather than radical, ideologically siloed solutions that make the world seem scary.

Despite being an optimist, I worry that if we continue to fail our children, they will continue to be vulnerable to challenges beyond their control. Their symptoms of disorder need to be a warning sign to us that we need to make the world a better place very soon.


Anderson, N.W., Zimmerman, F.J., Markowitz, A.J., Halfon, N., Eisenberg, D., & Moore, K.A. (2023). Child and adolescent mental health outcomes are declining despite continued improvement in well-being indicators. Child Trends.

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