Boys and girls are suffering, but in different ways

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a blockbuster report: Teenage girls in the United States are experiencing record-high levels of despair, with almost two-thirds reporting that they felt persistently sad or hopeless, typical signs of depression. By contrast, almost one-third of teenage boys reported those struggles.

That gap caught our attention. Why is it so large? Are boys able to cope with the challenges of adolescence in ways that girls somehow are not? We wanted to find out. Our social sciences writer Sujata Gupta dug into the data. The truth, she found out, is much more complicated. Recognizing those complications could point to ways to make life better for all teens.

It turns out that it matters how doctors and scientists ask someone if they’re depressed. Girls and women are more likely to experience depression as sadness or hopelessness. Boys and men are more apt to experience it as irritation or anger. But traditional questionnaires used to screen for depression tend to use the sad/hopeless language and not irritable/angry. Thus, the suffering of many boys may be missed on surveys like the CDC’s. In fact, studies suggest that typical screening tools might fail to identify male depression 10 percent of the time. Questionnaires that include language aligning with males’ experiences are more likely to close that gap.

Most struggling teenagers will survive adolescence, but some, tragically, do not. Suicide rates among teens have risen since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC report, based on data collected in 2021, found that teenage girls are more likely than boys to contemplate suicide, plan it or attempt it. But other national data show that teenage boys are more likely to die of suicide. Teenage boys’ unrecognized mental health struggles may play a role in explaining that discrepancy, as might the fact that boys are more likely to use a firearm in a suicide attempt. Impulsivity may also be a factor. Males who are depressed are more likely to engage in impulsive, risky or violent acts than those who are not depressed, some research shows.

In focusing on the mental health of boys, Gupta took care to not minimize the crisis among girls. “That was the trickiest emotional aspect of this story,” she says. “Actually, nobody’s doing well.”

Ultimately, the teen mental health crisis won’t be solved by focusing on just one group. Everyone needs help. But it can be very difficult for parents to find counseling and other mental health support for struggling teens. The CDC says that schools can help fill that gap. “Schools can provide education that equips teens with essential skills, such as understanding and ensuring true sexual consent, managing emotions and asking for what they need,” the agency noted in a press release announcing its survey findings.

But presuming that schools struggling with tight budgets can supply those supports sounds naïve. All parts of society need to step up. We can no longer pretend that the kids are all right, or stigmatize them for admitting they are struggling and asking for help. And we need to recognize that each suffering young person is suffering in their own way.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.