Darien’s teen mental health survey reveals stark differences across genders, experts say

DARIEN — A recent survey that showed nearly half of Darien’s youth are struggling with loneliness and anxiety also revealed significant mental health differences depending on gender identity.

The good news: Darien parents can use several strategies to boost their children’s mental health, according to local experts.

Those strategies, along with the results of the survey, were highlighted in a recent presentation by Darien’s Thriving Youth Task Force, a coalition of youth leaders that aims to reduce substance use by teenagers.

The task force, which was formed in 2008, collects and presents results from a mental health survey every three years. The most recent one, administered in February, surveyed Darien students from seventh to 12th grade.

The survey revealed that while 54 percent of Darien students marked they were “thriving” or “OK,” another 46 percent reported they felt anxious, vulnerable or distressed.

But there was a striking difference based on whether those students identified as male or female, experts said.

“Females are overrepresented in the vulnerable and distress categories,” said Emily Larkin, the program director of the Thriving Youth Task Force. Conversely, male students were much more likely to mark they were thriving or OK, Larkin said.

The May 4 presentation featured several area licensed therapists who each offered parents strategies in helping their male, female and nonbinary students in Darien who struggle with their mental health.

Student data may not always accurately represent the mental health struggles young boys go through, said Andrew Tepper, a psychotherapist who works with the Norwalk-based Riverwalk Group.

“You also want to look at what's not in the data,” Tepper said.

In a lot of cases, male students feel safer expressing academic stress than they do overall mental distress, Tepper said. He cautioned parents to read between the lines and use statements of academic stress as a launching point to dig deeper into their child’s overall mental health.

For female students especially, social media can drive increased feelings of depression and anxiety related to body image, said Olivia Bucci, a licensed clinical social worker who works with teenagers at Newtown Middle School.

“The more time they're spending on their phone, the more that there's a chance for a negative exchange between their peers, as well as the constant comparison of ‘this is on Instagram,’” Bucci said.

Bucci recommended holding conversations with teenagers, especially teenage girls, around sensitive subjects. She also recommended creating strong boundaries around social media usage, such as limiting phone time during bed — and for parents to model self-imposed screen time rules, too.

For transgender and nonbinary students, the stakes of struggling with mental health can be higher, said Renee Reopell, a program director with the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut.

Darien’s survey did not have enough students who selected “other” or preferred not to answer when asked about their gender identity to parse specific data on their mental health, but national data from the Trevor Project and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicates those teens face starkly different struggles than their classmates with their mental health.

More than 50 percent of transgender and nonbinary young people have attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime, Reopell said, a “staggeringly large” figure when compared with their cisgender peers.

“The reason that these rates are so astronomically high is we're talking about overlapping identities and experiences of oppression,” Reopell said. “So this is a combination of stigma experience, from the family, social stigma experience from peers in their school systems and in their extracurricular activities.”

Parents of students who identify as transgender or nonbinary can have an outsized influence on their child’s mental health just by affirming that identity, Reopell said.

“The single biggest predictor of mental health outcomes for trans and nonbinary young people is having at least one accepting adult in their life,” Reopell said. “You just want to reinforce that celebrating somebody's gender also does a tremendous amount to normalize that ‘This is a healthy and wonderful part of who you are.’”