‘It’s life or death’: America’s teenage mental health crisis

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How Journalist Matt Richtel Talked to Teens and Parents for This Series

In mid-April, I was talking to the mother of a suicidal teenager whose struggles I follow closely. I asked how her daughter was doing.

Not good, the mum said, “If we can’t come up with something drastic to help this kid, this kid won’t be here long term.” 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.”

In nearly 18 months of reporting, I’ve met many teens and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists, and teen science experts. I heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the start, my editors and I discussed how best to manage the identity of people in crisis.

The Times sets the bar high for granting sources anonymity; our style manual calls it “a last resort” for situations where important information cannot be published any other way. Often, sources may face a threat to their career or even their safety, whether from a vindictive boss or a hostile government.

In this case, the need for anonymity had a different imperative: to protect the privacy of vulnerable young adolescents. They mutilated and attempted suicide, and some threatened to try again. In telling their stories, we had to keep in mind that our first duty was to ensure their safety.

If the Times published the names of these teenagers, they could be easily identified years later. Would it harm their employment opportunities? Would a teenager – a legal minor – later regret exposing his identity during a time of pain and struggle? Would seeing the story published amplify the ongoing crises?

Therefore, some teenagers are only identified by their first initial; some of their parents are identified by their first names or initials. Over the months, I got to know M, J, and C, and in Kentucky I met troubled teenagers that I identified only by age, 12, 13, and 15. In some stories, we did not publish precisely where the families lived.

Everyone I interviewed gave their own consent, and parents were usually present during interviews with their teens. On a few occasions, a parent has offered to leave the room or a teenager has asked for privacy and the parent has agreed.

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

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