Keeping Our Boys Mentally Healthy Is More Important Than Ever
Boys have unique mental health issues and need extra attention after a year of school closures
About a month ago, I started interviews for an article for Edutopia about the particular mental health needs of boys and how schools can help them. Sometimes articles are more than just words on a screen. Sometimes the conversations behind the articles change me. This was one of those articles.
Only a small fraction of the many hours of interviews made it into this 1,500 word Internet article. My editor and I decided to leave out the discussions related to COVID for various reasons, but it was a huge topic during my conversations with various experts.
In my phone calls, experts told me that this year did serious damage to America’s teenagers in ways that we still don’t fully understand. When schools open properly in September, staff might have to put academics aside, and concentrate on getting kids back into good social and emotional shape. They talked about the need to triage students in order to prioritize help for those kids with most damage.
Being locked up in a bedroom with unlimited access to the Internet for an entire year does terrible things to a teenager’s brain.
After I hung up the phone from one those lengthy interviews, I would track down my oldest son, Jonah, who was doing his online college classes from the sofa or his bed, to get his views on things. At 21, he’s past the years of massive hormone fluctuation and teenage drama, but he’s a sensitive kid, who was hit hard by the end of college classes. After all, it is not natural for a young adult to spend months and months only speaking in person with his old parents and autistic brother. While he dealt with this adversity with good humor, it was certainly a blow.
We chatted about the good habits for mental health (exercise, regular sleep times, laughter) and how to maintain routines and schedules, when there is no structure coming from outside. Two of his four classes this semester are just YouTube videos of the professors reading PowerPoint slides, so he has no reason to set an alarm clock and get out of bed at any particular time.
Early on, I established various routines for Ian to help control his anxiety, like daily walks and regular times for meals and sleep. Setting up routines for him was such a big part of our lives last spring that I wrote newsletter posts about it. Jonah benefited from those routines, too. We all do. People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Some say that kids with social issues, like autism, benefit from remote education, because they can focus on their academics without the pressures of dealing with social issues. I’m of another mind on this one. I think that kids, like my son, need to constantly work on their social and emotional deficits. You can’t develop social skills from a Zoom call in your bedroom. You also can’t learn to handle anxiety and other issues, when you spend all day in your pajamas surfing the Internet until 4am.
And boys, in particular, have a real need for good mental health supports, because they don’t have deep friendships or the tools for asking for help. Boys were especially vulnerable to the pressures of this year. Their social and emotional development — already behind girls — was stunted by the lack of exposure to other people. They were already more vulnerable to extreme levels of depression. This year was tough on them.
This article helped me think more closely about the mental health issues of both of my boys. It made me more sympathetic to their struggles. I hope it helped me become a better listener.
So, be good to the boys in your lives. Don’t assume that their stoic and brusque manner means that they are coping well. Most importantly, reach out to a professional for help if see certain warning signs, like late night Internet activity and increased isolation from others. Hopefully, we’ll all be back to normal soon, but in the meantime, we need to take care of each other.
Are We Facing a Mental Health Crisis for Boys?
by Laura McKenna
While Niobe Way was working toward her PhD in counseling at Harvard University in the late 1980s, she was struck by the fact that boys frequently told her during therapy sessions that they wished they had better friendships.
Decades later, Way, now a professor of developmental psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has interviewed more than a thousand boys and has found that little has changed. “The culture of hypermasculinity makes it harder for boys to form relationships, and that leads to a crisis of connection,” said Way, who has discovered that while boys desire connections with peers, they tend to distance themselves as they age, due to social stigmas.
“I feel pretty lonely and sometimes depressed… because I don’t have no one to go out with, no one to speak on the phone, no one to tell my secrets,” confided one high school boy in Way’s book, expressing a typical sentiment. “I tried to look for a person, you know, but it’s not that easy.”
While the teenage years have always been a time for critical development and heightened emotions, America’s teens now seem to be struggling more than ever—especially boys. One study found that the rates of depression increased by 52 percent in teens between 2005 and 2017, and in 2019, 70 percent of teens reported anxiety and depression as major problems. For boys in particular, there has been an alarming rise in suicides among older teens (15 and older) since 2000, and they die by suicide at three to four times the rate of girls.
I blogged about the greater need for connections between high school and options for kids who aren’t going to a four-year college.
The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers. I’m still reading this, but so far, it’s amazing. “The median age for COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. is about 80. Of the nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of early March, 252 were among those 18 or younger — five hundredths of a percent of the total.”