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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

CDC: Mental health for female teens sees sharp, recent decline; trend echoed locally

William Norwood
Social media constantly causes a decline in mental health and continues to hook people to their sites.

Editor’s note: This story contains mentions of body dysmorphia, eating disorders and suicide. It also uses anonymous sources to discuss sensitive topics.

In February, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that 3 in 5 adolescent females reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. More worrisome was the report’s finding that 1 in 3 teen girls has seriously considered committing suicide.

Girls interviewed by The Falcon cite academic stress and body dysmorphia as the main reasons for these findings, with one saying: “I would be surprised if a girl at SHS hadn’t faced body image issues at some point during high school.” 

Each year, barring 2020-21, rates of suicide and depression have continued to rise in the U.S. among men, women and adolescents. 

A CDC report stated that emergency department visits have increased by 51% for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 in the U.S. during the pandemic. 

In addition, body dysmorphia — a disorder that involves an obsession with  perceived flaws about appearance — are at alarming rates in both men and women. According to a study conducted by Brigham Young University, an estimated 23% to 32% of college-age women have suffered or are suffering from some kind of eating disorder or body dysmorphia issues. An estimated 2.2% of females have been diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, also defined as body dysmorphia, in the U.S. Many females relate their depression and anxiety to body image issues. 

Senior’s childhood struggles with body dysmorphia exacerbated by quarantine, finds cure through soccer 

  This student asked to remain anonymous, and will be referred to as Rachel. Rachel is a senior who has lived in Saratoga for most of her life. 

Rachel largely attributes her experiences facing body issues and academic anxiety to the school’s hyper competitive environment. 

“People — myself included — are constantly talking about how Saratoga is stressful and promotes unhealthy academic standards,” she said. “However, we don’t do anything substantial to alleviate that stress or pain that weighs on students’ mental health. That’s what ultimately causes kids to crumble: The consistent pressure to achieve higher standards.”

Rachel moved to the district in middle school. When she started attending SHS, she recalls that teachers and students were constantly talking about college and all the qualifications needed to get accepted into the elite colleges. 

“People told me about programs outside of school that will boost academic records and how you must push yourself to your limit just to achieve this unattainable academic standard that we have here,” Rachel said. 

Quarantine hit just as she started high school, and like much of the teen population, she found herself constantly online, which further exacerbated the stress she was already feeling. 

A UC San Francisco study found that 12-13-year-olds doubled their non-school-related screen time during the pandemic. Simultaneously, social media experienced a boom in promoting “healthy eating” by fitness influencers. 

However, according to studies by Healthline, this promotion of so-called healthy eating proved more toxic than healthy. Influencers promote ways to quickly lose weight or get abs quickly, often through restrictive diets. This leads to a toxic diet culture that idolizes unrealistic body goals, which target vulnerable populations like children and teenagers. 

As Rachel continued to compare herself to others, symptoms of body dysmorphia, present since childhood, worsened during the isolation of quarantine. 

“Since I was in elementary school — which is crazy to think about — the biggest issue I had, body-wise, was my legs, my thighs,” Rachel said. “It prevented me from wearing shorts throughout elementary, middle and high school.”

Despite the fact that her body dysmorphia stemmed from trying to look the “best way” and get the “ideal body,” Rachel believes that her time playing soccer helped her overcome her insecurities. 

“I had to wear shorts during games, so I just had to suck it up and get it over with,” Rachel said. “To a certain extent, soccer pushed me to get over [my body dysmorphia], because my thighs aren’t something I wanted to think about during the game. If I was playing, I wasn’t going to think about my thighs — I’d be thinking about the ball.”

Rachel feels that the way she has managed through her mental health struggles was her desire to get better. While she continues to struggle to maintain and navigate her mental health, both she and her mother have consistently worked to better her mental health.

Junior’s body dysmorphia fueled by isolation

This student asked to remain anonymous, and will be referred to as Christine. Christine is a junior who moved to Saratoga during 7th grade. 

Starting elementary school in Asia, Christine always felt like an outsider in her school’s environment. Even before moving to Saratoga, she was bullied by other kids. 

“They isolated me because I was pretty nerdy, and they would call me ugly to my face,” said Christine. “My best friend at the time would fluctuate between joining them just to and siding with me, which really confused me and gave me low self esteem. [The bullying] ruined my confidence and faith in my friendships to this day.”

As a result, she was increasingly lonely, causing her social skills to decline and leading her to develop social anxiety. Christine started to experience outbursts of anger, the primary evidence of early depression in young children

“I started developing social and general anxiety in elementary school. I would have these fears of my parents dying. I had a lot of panic attacks,” Christine said. “I didn’t really have many friends or anyone to eat lunch with. When I started taking lunch to school, I’d be so embarrassed of this that I’d throw away my food.” 

Even so, Christine said she had never felt a major decline in her emotions and mental health until she moved to the U.S in 7th grade. At that time, Christine also started to experience recurring ideas of body dysmorphia and how she, and other girls, were expected to present themselves. 

“On top of needing to prove yourself and excel in what you do, you also have other pressures of people telling you how you’re supposed to look and how you’re supposed to behave,” she said.

She recalled one particularly traumatizing experience — of a boy rating the looks of girls in a P.E. class — that occurred at Redwood Middle School, Saratoga’s feeder school, in 7th grade. The boy had pointed to a conventionally attractive girl and rated her a 9, otherwise a 10 except for her wearing makeup, and then pointed to Christine and told her she was only a 3. 

This experience made Christine acutely aware of how others judge her based on her appearance. Around half a year after this incident, the pandemic quarantine started, and Christine’s mental health hit rock bottom. Along with dropping grades and struggles with general and social anxiety, she also suffered from severe body dysmorphia and would often throw away her food, which eventually transformed into a vicious cycle of restriction and weight loss. At that point, “being hungry” became her norm, and she started to base her personal value on her weight. She was diagnosed with both eating disorders and body dysmorphia in that same year.

 “I would spend hours scrolling on TikTok looking for the best ab workouts to lose weight,” she said. “That time spent scrolling would just end up making me feel horrible. I was an eighth grader. No eighth grader should be worrying about losing weight.” 

More recently, Christine started going to the gym consistently, a habit that has given her more confidence. However, while working out at the gym, she still feels that her body type does not fall into the ideal “gym girl” look.  

“There’s a certain body type that’s desired. Big butt, big legs, abs and a small waist,” Christine said. “I just feel like, as a woman at the gym, people are judging me.”

Christine also feels the bodybuilding and gym culture is inherently toxic with a common practice of “bulking” and “cutting” through meticulously measuring calories and macros in your diet. A lot of the gym goals are surrounding reaching a specific control over your diet to build the “perfect” body. 

“As someone with a diagnosed ED I’m always going to be an anorexic so I’ve been conscious to stay away from the conventional notions of dietary control because it is easy to slip back into restricting,” Christine said. “It really turns into a different kind of eating disorder where restricting calories turns into counting macros with this same level of unhealthy obsession and it’s important to set boundaries for myself so I don’t slip into that behavior again.”

Her mental health has improved, thanks to therapy and eating programs to better improve her relationship with food. Although she feels happier, she faults society and growing expectations of parents and other teens, as well as isolation, as the main causes of her mental health issues.

 “It’s not enough to just exist. You always have to be doing something more,” Christine said. “There’s so much going on; there’s climate change, wars, discrimination, health crises, global recessions and a pandemic. And I’m expected to fight, but when I do, I’m told that I am only a child and should not worry about these things. What do you want from us?” 

To anyone at SHS who is in a mental health crisis, please contact the suicide and crisis lifeline. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national local crisis center, which provides confidential support for people in an emotional crisis, or in a suicidal situation. The hotline is open 24/7 for no cost. The 988 website states: “We’re committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness.”

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