‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among American Teenagers

How reporter Matt Richtel spoke to young people and parents of this series

In mid-April, I spoke with the mother of a suicide-threatened teenager whose struggles I have been following closely. I asked how her daughter was doing.

Not good, the mother said, “If we can not find something drastic to help this child, this child will not be here in the long run.” She started crying. “It’s out of our hands, it’s out of our control,” she said. “We try everything.”

She added: “It’s like waiting for the end.”

Over the course of nearly 18 months of reporting, I got to know many young people and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists, and youth science experts. I heard shocking stories of pain and insecurity. From the beginning, my editors and I discussed how best to deal with the identity of people in crisis.

The Times sets a high bar to give sources anonymity; our stylebook calls it “a last resort” in situations where important information cannot be otherwise disclosed. Often, the sources may face a threat to their career or even their safety, whether it is from a vengeful boss or a hostile government.

In this case, the need for anonymity had another imperative: to protect the privacy of young, vulnerable young people. They have self-harmed and attempted suicide, and some have threatened to try again. When we told their stories, we should be aware that our first duty was their safety.

If The Times published the names of these young people, they could be easily identified years later. Will it hurt their employment opportunities? Would a teenager – a legal minor – later regret having revealed his identity during a period of pain and struggle? Would seeing the story published amplify the ongoing crises?

As a result, some teens are identified only at first initial; some of their parents are identified by first name or initial. Over the course of months, I got to know M, J, and C, and in Kentucky, I got to know struggling young people, whom I only identified by their ages, 12, 13, and 15. In some stories, we did not disclose exactly where the families lived.

Everyone I interviewed gave their own consent, and the parents were typically present for the conversations with their youngsters. On a few occasions, a parent offered to leave the room, or a teenager asked for privacy, and the parent said yes.

In these articles, I heard sadness, confusion, and a desperate search for answers. The voices of young people and their parents, while being protected by anonymity, deepen the understanding of this mental health crisis.

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