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Description: You cannot have missed at least some of the many recent media references to concerns over the mental health of adolescents in North America. Concerns were being expressed pre-covid and only increased over the months/years of the covid pandemic. Now there have always been versions of the statement “kids these days…!?” out there but this feels like a bigger deal. Large surveys are suggesting that over 40% of students report feeling hopeless in 2021, 29% experiencing poor mental health, one in 5 contemplated suicide and one in ten have attempted suicide (American stats – see Further Reading links, Canadian stats are similar). What should we do in the face of these sorts of alarming numbers? Certainly we need to get more research data but where to begin and where to look? We can look for socio-historical changes that may be contributing to these changes and we have started to look at the impacts of the arrival and rapid uptake of social media. We can look to see if these issues are more or less common among different components of the adolescent population. We can look for ways to make support and treatment for mental health issues more widely and cheaply available. We have been looking at all of these things and yet we do not yet fully understand what is going on or what we can do to make things better. One direction of thought and research we have not moved along very far yet involves asking some developmental questions. We have used the phrase “failure to thrive” for years when trying to figure out why some infants such as those born pre-maturely or with birth complications or with challenging social or nutritional resources or with a depressed mother. In that line of research we essentially ask; what things are such infants lacking and what do they need in order to grow and development in a strong positive manner. Note that such developmental inquiries involve looking at both what is going on with the individuals in question AND what the world around them is like (i.e., what it lacks or what it includes that is toxic). What if we viewed the ‘teen mental health crisis’ developmentally as a failure to thrive? What sorts of things would we find and, most importantly, what sorts of things would this suggest we may be able to try and do with struggling teens that will actually help them move along positively, developmentally, into emerging adulthood? Think about this for a minute and then read what the author of the article linked below suggests might be good to try.

Source: How to Help Teens Find Purpose Amid the Mental Health Crisis. Minnie Bredouw, Time Magazine

Date: February 15, 2023

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

Article Link:

Did the suggestions made in the linked article make sense? One thing I noted was that while it seemed that the suggestions DID seem to fit my earlier description as developmentally conceived and focused on aspects of what might be viewed as teen failures to thrive it was not particularly clear what the developmental competencies, milestones or accomplishments are that they might benefit from support or assistance in working towards. The development of self-reflection, purpose, and their application through taking action and connecting with community and their surrounding world are all core components of identity development. It helps to suggest that what is going on is a failure to thrive in terms of identity development as there is a lot of developmental research looking at identity. What is also very important to understand about identity development  is that it is the developmental process through which adolescents and emerging adults not only start to figure out who they are but also to figure out where they are going to aim to go in the world and how they are going to go about finding or making and then navigating their pathways towards their goals. As such, our research and our efforts at providing them with developmental support and assistance along their ways must consider both them and the nature of the world they see around them and ahead of them. Developing and implementing purpose and direction in life is harder today than it was for previous generations. Only by deepening our understanding of what this means for the developmental tasks being taken up by today’s teens and emerging adults will we be better able to help them thrive developmentally as they move out into the world.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are some of the mental health issues that are seen as more prevalent today among teens than in previous decades or generations?
  2. What does the phrase ‘failure to thrive’ mean and how might it apply to teens these days?
  3. What sorts of things can be done to support teens as they work on their developmental challenges and how are the things we can try and do linked to that development?

References (Read Further):

Pizzolato, J. E., Brown, E. L., & Kanny, M. A. (2011). Purpose plus: Supporting youth purpose, control, and academic achievement. New directions for youth development, 2011(132), 75-88. Link

Hill, P. L., Burrow, A. L., & Bronk, K. C. (2016). Persevering with positivity and purpose: An examination of purpose commitment and positive affect as predictors of grit. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17, 257-269. Link

Butts, Jeffrey A., Gordon Bazemore, & Aundra Saa Meroe (2010). Positive Youth Justice–Framing Justice Interventions Using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development. Washington, DC: Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Link

Grahek, I., Shenhav, A., Musslick, S., Krebs, R. M., & Koster, E. H. (2019). Motivation and cognitive control in depression. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 102, 371-381. Link

Miles, A., Andiappan, M., Upenieks, L., & Orfanidis, C. (2022). Using prosocial behavior to safeguard mental health and foster emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic: A registered report of a randomized trial. PloS one, 17(7), e0272152. Link

Machell, K. A., Disabato, D. J., & Kashdan, T. B. (2016). Buffering the negative impact of poverty on youth: The power of purpose in life. Social Indicators Research, 126(2), 845-861. Link

Yuen, M., Lee, Q. A., Kam, J., & Lau, P. S. (2017). Purpose in life: A brief review of the literature and its implications for school guidance programs. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 27(1), 55-69. Link