Teens Know Why Mental Health Is Worsening, Now It’s Time to Listen

Savannah Sellers is an NBC News NOW anchor, co-host of Stay Tuned on Snapchat and an NBC News correspondent. She is anchoring a new special Teens Under Pressure: Mental Health & Social Media tonight on NBC News NOW at 10:30 p.m. ET.

From age 11 to 14, most days began on my knees on cold, hard tile with my head over a toilet. Throwing up was as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth. My body was wracked with so much anxiety before school and the unfortunate reaction was constantly feeling sick.

For a long time, my family and I thought I was “nervous” or “stressed,” but it was more than that. It was undiagnosed anxiety disorder. I had an intense fear of being called on in class. I obsessively checked to make sure I remembered to bring my homework with me, even checking and rechecking my backpack before leaving the house and throughout the day. I worried constantly about saying the right thing to my peers – all people I perceived to be much cooler than me. I didn’t want to get out of the car several days a week when it was time for my dad to drop me off. To try to ease me into the day, he came up with a little secret code. As he drove off, he would tap his brake lights three times to stand for “I love you.” I wouldn’t head into the halls until I saw those red flashes and I would think: just hang on for seven hours and then you’re right back here getting in mom’s car to go home.

Then there were the phobias (which, at the time, I didn’t have the terminology for). The first is the wind. Yes, you read that right … the natural movement of air. It brought on a full panic attack – in fact, it still can, but I have coping mechanisms now. I’m talking heart pounding, palms sweating, body shaking, shallow breathing to the point of needing my inhaler. At least that one has a name: Ancraophobia. The other does not. It’s an irrational fear of things that move in a repetitive motion. As in, watching a merry-go-round or Ferris wheel will bring me to tears. Those pirate ship rides at the fair that swing back and forth? Forget it. I cannot even glance at them without a full body sweat. It also makes it quite difficult to stay calm on a boat, given the constant rocking. As my dad likes to say, you can’t make this stuff up.

But here’s the thing: at the time, my parents had no idea how bad it was. It would be years before any of this was properly diagnosed, and even longer until I fully understood the extent of my anxiety disorder and the fact that this was with me for life. Part of this was because I didn’t have the words. I wasn’t used to hearing about anxiety and mental health was still a pretty taboo topic at the time. But part of it was because of the shame I felt and the assumption that I should keep quiet and deal with my struggles alone. Trust me, if my parents would have known I was getting physically sick every morning, they would have acted immediately. Somewhere within me was a voice telling me that no one else should know about this. My sister would hear me getting sick most mornings, while she was on the other side of the door getting ready for school. When she would ask me if I was OK, I would often act as if I didn’t know what she was talking about.

Savannah Sellers at age 13
Savannah Sellers at age 13

Now, I am much more comfortable talking about it. Although, I will admit, writing about my fear of the wind in Teen Vogue to live forever on the internet has me feeling pretty vulnerable. Being wired this way has made me deeply passionate about reporting on mental health. It’s why I pushed for an entire special dedicated to teens and their mental health, which is airing Thursday, March 16 on NBC News NOW. If I can be one small reason that someone may recognize they are not alone and that dealing with this is not shameful, then I’m doing my job right as a person blessed with the platform I have.

In the hundreds of hours I’ve spent reporting on mental health and conversing with my mostly teenage Snapchat followers, I’ve realized there’s something else at play here. I genuinely believe it is harder to grow up now than when I was a kid. Social media has made body image top of mind, beauty standards unrealistic and FOMO constant. Sexual violence is on the riseCOVID kept children isolatedClimate change is threatening our futures. Information about all of this is constantly available and served up and it’s impacting mental health.

A recent CDC study puts some numbers around that theory and they are heartbreaking. To a lot of people, they are shocking. To the teens I’ve spoken to, they are not surprising. 42% of high school students say they’ve experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. 22% have seriously considered suicide.

When it comes to girls, the numbers are significantly worse. 57% of females had those persistent hopelessness feelings and 30% seriously considered suicide. Almost a quarter of female high school students actually made a plan.

I spoke about the report with the CDC’s Director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health, Kathleen Ethier, PhD, and she said something that really stuck with me. When we talk about how, frankly, frightening the numbers are about teen girls specifically, she said there is an important distinction we must make. We cannot be asking the question, “what’s wrong with our girls?” We must ask, “what’s happening to our girls?” The answer is: a lot.

In this same CDC report came the disturbing statistic that 14% of high school girls say they have been forced to have sex. This number shocked me, but devastatingly this number did not shock several teenagers I’ve spoken with and who you’ll hear from in our NBC News NOW special. They were able to describe in detail for me the way they avoid certain hallways or won’t walk around at a football game at a rival high school without a buddy. And remember what I said about it being harder to grow up now? They also pointed to the rise in misogynistic content online and said they directly correlate rhetoric from people like Andrew Tate with the behavior they experience. It’s a rabbit hole I reported on last year for Meet the Press Reports and it is terrifying.

With the prevalence of social media and this generation’s lifelong exposure to it, you’d have to be a robot to not feel sad or hopeless – at least sometimes – when you have an endless stream of content that has a high likelihood of making you feel bad about yourself, just in the palm of your hand. If your friends are hanging out without you, you’ll see it. If your ex has a new girlfriend, you’ll see it. People that you know and people that you don’t looking happy, fulfilled and successful? You’ll see plenty of that. People looking impossibly beautiful and in shape? No question. And by the way, as I reported last week for NBC Nightly News, boys are not immune to body image issues or being diagnosed with eating disorders and researchers are finally paying attention.

My hope is that in watching our special, Teens Under Pressure: Mental Health & Social Media, anyone struggling will find comfort in space being made for this conversation. I also hope that anyone who is not struggling will come away with a better understanding of what  their peers may be going through and tools to help those in need. My greatest joy in creating this was connecting with high schoolers who are willing to open up, be honest and hope to help someone else. If reading this has made you wonder, what can I do to help? Be the listener. Be the one who checks in. If you’re an adult, make genuine connections with the young people in your life and help them gain perspective. As you’ll hear, that’s what our teens are really searching for, even if they don’t have the words to ask.

And if you are someone who doesn’t feel OK right now, please hang in there. The storms will clear. I’ve been there, and now I’m writing about it for Teen Vogue. We see you. We need you. And I’m here to tell your stories.

Teens Under Pressure: Mental Health & Social Media airs tonight, March 16, on NBC News NOW at 10:30pm ET. Anchored by NBC News’ Savannah Sellers, the special features interviews with a group of teens from Fairfax, Virginia, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, as well as Teen Vogue’s Fortesa Latifi.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue