Suicidal Thoughts and Sadness Hit Record High Among U.S. Teen Girls

CDC data show female high school students are "in crisis,” amid a stark rise in sexual violence and suicidal behaviors.

high school student using phone looking stressed

Updated on February 14, 2023.

About one-third of U.S. teen girls admit they’ve seriously considered suicide, according to a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2021, 57 percent of female students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless—double that of boys and the highest levels reported in a decade. Meanwhile, nearly 25 percent of teen girls went so far as to make a suicide plan. The CDC report also found that teen girls are also experiencing record high levels of sexual violence—a 20 precent surge from 2017.

“America's teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma,” said Debra Houry, MD, MPH, the CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science during a February 13 media briefing. “Over the past decade, teens, especially girls, have experienced dramatic increases in experiences of violence and poor mental health and suicide risk. These data are hard to hear and should result in action.”

The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) is a nationally representative survey developed in 1990 to monitor behaviors, such as alcohol and tobacco use, diet, physical activity, and sexual activities, that affect the health and well-being of young people in the United States. Since 1991, the YRBSS has collected data from more than 4.9 million high school students.

For the latest survey, researchers compiled 17,508 questionnaires that were distributed to 152 private and public schools across the country in the fall of 2021. It is the first high school survey conducted since the COVID pandemic began. The researchers noted these findings may help shed light on the severe impact that the disruptions in daily life had on teen health and well-being, which had already been declining in recent years.

Teen girls faring worse than boys

Overall, 22 percent of the high schoolers polled said they have thought about suicide—down from a record high of 29 percent in the 1990s, but well above the 2009 record low of 13.8 percent. While certain aspects of well-being improved including risky sexual behavior, substance use, and being bullied at school, almost all other indicators of well-being—condom use, testing for sexually transmitted infections, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors—worsened significantly, particularly among girls. The survey found that female students reported these negative experiences far more than their male counterparts.

“Although we have seen worsening trends in mental health for young people over the last 10 years, the levels of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors reported by teenage girls are now higher than we have ever seen,” said Kathleen Ethier, PhD, CDC’s director of adolescent school health division.

In 2021, nearly 30 percent of teen girls drank alcohol during the past 30 days. Among the girls, 18 percent said they experienced sexual violence over the past year, compared to 5 percent of boys. The CDC report also showed that 14 percent of female students had been raped—a 3 percent jump in just two years. Roughly 30 percent of teen girls seriously contemplated suicide, compared to 14 percent of their male peers.

About 17 percent of high school girls said they were bullied at school. The same was true for 13 percent of boys. Girls also faced twice as much bullying over social media as teen boys—20 percent compared to 11 percent. Until now, girls were as likely or less likely than boys to drink, vape, abuse opioids, or use marijuana. The 2021 survey found that things have changed. Girls are now more likely than boys to engage in each of these behaviors. 

Minority groups also experiencing worse mental health

Nearly half of LGBTQ+ students also said they had seriously considered a suicide attempt, the CDC survey found. And nearly 70 percent of these students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, while more than 50 percent had poor mental health during the past 30 days.

Almost 1 in 4 of LGBTQ+ teens attempted suicide during the past year, the CDC report revealed, noting these students are "significantly more likely" to experience violence than their cisgender peers.

Persistent sadness and hopelessness increased among more than one-third of students from all backgrounds, but more than 25 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native teens said they had seriously considered a suicide attempt—more than other races and ethnicities.

“These data are clear,” Ethier said. “Our young people are in crisis and schools are on the front lines of this crisis and they must be equipped with the tools to support young people.” Ethier noted this includes more training for teachers, bringing mentors into schools, enabling students to become involved in their communities, ensuring schools are safe for vulnerable students, and providing high quality health education, particularly in sexual consent and communication.

"High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma,” added Dr. Houry. “These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive.”

Don't hesitate to take action

If you believe that you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions, such as “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or dying?” Having this candid talk won’t make someone more likely to take their own life. It may, however, give people in crisis the opportunity to open up about their feelings may reduce the likelihood that they act on suicidal thoughts.

People considering suicide can reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘HELLO’ to 741741. They will be connected with a person who will listen to their concerns without judgement. They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988.

If you’re with someone who is actively considering suicide, do not leave that person alone. Call 911 right away or go to the nearest emergency room.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS).
Youth.gov. 2011-2021 YRBS Data Summary and Trends Report. Feb 13, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Media briefing. Feb 13, 2023.

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