“It’s a matter of life or death”: The mental health crisis among US teens

How reporter Matt Richtel spoke to teens and parents for this series

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

Not good, the mother said, “Unless we find something drastic to help this child, this child will not be here long.” She began to cry. “It’s not in 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 have met many youth and their families, and interviewed dozens of physicians, therapists, and youth science experts. I heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the beginning, my editors and I have debated how best to deal with the identity of people in crisis.

The Times sets a high bar for maintaining source anonymity; Our style book calls it “a last resort” for situations where important information cannot otherwise be disclosed. Often the sources face a threat to their careers or even their safety, whether 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 adolescents. They have self-harmed and attempted suicide, and some have threatened to try again. In telling their stories, we had to be aware that our first duty was their safety.

If the Times published the names of these youths, they could be easily identified years later. Would that affect their employment opportunities? Would a teenager – a minor – later regret revealing his or her identity at a time of pain and struggle? Would publishing the story add to the ongoing crises?

As a result, some teenagers are identified by their first letter only. Some of their parents are identified by their first names or initials. Over months I got to know M, J, and C, and in Kentucky I met struggling youth that I identified only by their ages, 12, 13, and 15. In some stories, we didn’t publish exactly where the families lived.

All I interviewed gave their own informed consent, and parents were usually present when their adolescents were interviewed. On a few occasions, a parent offered to leave the room or a youth asked for privacy, and the parent agreed.

In those articles I heard sadness, confusion, and a desperate search for answers. The voices of adolescents and their parents, although shielded by anonymity, deepen understanding of this mental health crisis.

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