Are We Facing a Mental Health Crisis for Boys?

While Niobe Way was working toward her PhD in counseling at Harvard University in the late 1980s, she was struck by the fact that boys frequently told her during therapy sessions that they wished they had better friendships.

Decades later, Way, now a professor of developmental psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has interviewed more than a thousand boys and has found that little has changed. “The culture of hypermasculinity makes it harder for boys to form relationships, and that leads to a crisis of connection,” said Way, who has discovered that while boys desire connections with peers, they tend to distance themselves as they age, due to social stigmas.

“I feel pretty lonely and sometimes depressed… because I don’t have no one to go out with, no one to speak on the phone, no one to tell my secrets,” confided one high school boy in Way’s book, expressing a typical sentiment. “I tried to look for a person, you know, but it’s not that easy.”

While the teenage years have always been a time for critical development and heightened emotions, America’s teens now seem to be struggling more than ever—especially boys. One study found that the rates of depression increased by 52 percent in teens between 2005 and 2017, and in 2019, 70 percent of teens reported anxiety and depression as major problems. For boys in particular, there has been an alarming rise in suicides among older teens (15 and older) since 2000, and they die by suicide at three to four times the rate of girls.

More here.

10 thoughts on “Are We Facing a Mental Health Crisis for Boys?

  1. We are 100% experiencing this in our house with two teen boys. One has issues pre-dating the pandemic; the other was hit very hard by the pandemic. They’re both in therapy right now, and that seems to be helping. Because of this, we made the decision to allow them to socialize with a limited number of friends (1-2 friends each) during the pandemic. It’s not a decision we took lightly given the risks, but their mental health plummeted so badly during the period when we didn’t allow them to see friends that we became convinced that the potential for other, worse outcomes was higher than the risk of catching COVID.


    1. Also, I accidentally posted that anonymously, which makes it seem like I don’t want my name associated with the post, but it was just a mistake. I’ve tried to be very open about our struggles because I think it’s important. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me privately after I post on social media about our family issues – people feel very alone when dealing with this, and that has to change.


      1. I’m really sorry that you’ve been dealing with this burden this year. But you must know — YOU AND YOUR BOYS ARE NOT ALONE. We decided not to address problems directly related to COVID in this article for various reasons, but it was a huge topic during my conversations with various experts. They all said the damage that has been done to America’s teenagers is unimaginable and still truly unknown. Some said that the impact was going to be so huge, that schools should not even bother with academics next September when schools open. They will have to work to getting kids back into shape. They talked about the need to do triage on all the kids and figure out who was messed up the most and get those kids help first.

        Being locked up in a bedroom for an entire year does terrible things to a teenager’s brain.

        I did eight, hour long-interviews, which produced hundreds of pages of transcript. I boiled down those conversations to 2,300 words. My poor editor had to chop it down to 1,500 words, so it would be readable on the Internet. Those conversations totally changed my relationships with my sons. I wish that I had thought about these issues when Jonah was younger. (Ian has separate issues. He’s insulated from some pressures and concerns, but he definitely has his own baggage.)

        My advice? Don’t let them spend too much time by themselves. Dinner time is mandatory. Always do one family activity on the weekend. Participate in something (low key and positive is best) after school. Downplay academics and pressure. Regular meal and bedtimes are important. Daily exercise. Sometimes good mental health comes from those healthy habits, not just from adjustments in thinking. Force them to do things that are good for them, even if they find it hard, but do it gently with small nudges and reminders.


      2. Laura said, “Dinner time is mandatory.”

        Yeah, one of our teens periodically tries to boycott dinner. We sometimes allow a late start, but not a total skip, especially since this teen has a lot of trouble figuring out what to have for lunch, and will sometimes just skip it entirely if nothing sounds good. Unsurprisingly, teen gets weak and cranky after skipping or delaying lunch.

        Three meals a day is mandatory.

        I made some really unfortunate choices with lunch in high school, too. I used to get a grape juice box and a pack of cherry Lifesavers from the vending machine, and that was lunch. The one term in college that I lived in an apartment, I barely know what I ate. I know I wasn’t buying much in the way of actual food. Hopefully, I went to the cafeteria, but I remember getting weepy in one college class after eating nothing but a yogurt all day. Teens–like toddlers!–can be really dumb about not understanding the relationship between not eating/eating badly and feeling bad.


  2. The thought of sharing my feelings with a school counselor–that’s a vision of hell, right there.

    I object to conflating public emotional displays with mental health. There’s kind of a catch-22 to this, isn’t there? If you express distress, well, you’re displaying your distress. If you don’t express distress, well, you are obviously suffering from an inability to express your distress. Is there any option to say, “not bad, could be better” that won’t be interpreted as a catastrophe in the making?

    Good advice I once heard is to talk with boys while doing something, so that you aren’t making eye contact. Walking, washing dishes, folding laundry, are all good opportunities to talk. Car rides are great, too, for deeper conversations.

    The unprecedented, forced isolation of pandemic lockdowns has been hard for everyone. Only time will tell what its effects will be, though.


  3. This post hits close to home, Laura.
    I have a drama kid – so emoting (frequently in over the top ways over the minutiae of daily life) is the rule rather than the exception. Tears over a lower weekly grade by a favourite teacher; Tantrums over a missing pair of socks he wants to wear; ‘My life is ruined’ when I switch off the Internet (because it’s dinner time), etc.

    However, as a drama kid – he also knows how to use words for effect…..
    And there have been times when he’s said he feels suicidal. These have ranged from mild bullying at school – which we addressed smartly, through to a ‘no Internet for a day’ consequence – which I take with a healthy grain of salt.

    I guess that I should worry when he *doesn’t* talk, not when he does! [Though, I keep waiting for the teenage ‘grunt for yes and no’ communication-replacement to set in – no sign of it so far.]

    Also, he is a total wuss about anything to do with pain or medication (the performances over immunizations are epic) – so I take leave to doubt he’d ever actually carry through on anything….

    But, as a parent, those conversations leave you shaking – with ‘what if’ scenarios running through your head….

    For those of us going through teenage boy parenthood for the first time – it’s pretty hard to distinguish routine teen stressors (growing up is just plain hard) from the Covid related ones and/or something more serious.

    I really don’t think that communicating about their feelings is worse for boys now, than it was 20 or 40 years ago (I always remember that bit in Grease, where Danny and Kenickie hug, and then break away acting cool).

    One of our parenting gurus, here in NZ, is Nigel Latta. I remember him saying that men’s and women’s communication is totally different… Women ‘talk’, Men often use nonverbal communication.
    So that talking to your teen boy, is frequently talking past him. Just physically doing stuff together (dishes, lawn, gardening, shifting furniture, walking… whatever) – gives them the space/time to approach you, when they are ready….

    [BTW Latta is really reassuring about a lot of these ‘boy crisis’ stats and measures – I recommend his book “Mothers raising sons : what every mother needs to know to save her sanity” – it’s 2010 – but still, I feel, relevant today]


  4. Like Shannon, we’ve been incredibly open about our situation and struggles. And I just want to add that you can do everything right (constant family dinners, limited screen time, great therapists, alternative schools with no grades and no pressure) and still have a kid with a suicide attempt. While there are certainly things we can do to bolster both our physical and mental health, sometimes illness occurs and it is nobody’s “fault”. It just is. The one not-bad thing to come out of the pandemic (for us) is that a lot more people are talking opening about mental health these days – I’m hoping the stigma starts fading.

    Small things that have helped us: (beyond therapy – colossal amounts of therapy) – John Moe and his “Hilarious World of Depression” podcast/book. The podcast was cancelled, but he’s starting another endeavor this week. (worth listening to every old episode, though): “Hyperbole and a Half” (or anything by Allie Bosch); and if you are talking someone through severe suicidal feelings, this site has been tremendously helpful:

    Much love to all who are going through this right now. Another silver lining to share, when your sole purpose in life shifts to “just keeping my kid alive, one day at a time”, you do start not caring as much about inconsequential things, which has been nice. Perspective is a gift, of sorts.


  5. Hugs to you, Kristen, and all. We had some lesser scares when J was younger, but they were still horrific.

    Like you, I hope that we are growing more open as a society about talking about mental illness in general. It’s terrible for kids and parents to suffer alone.


  6. I very much appreciate the openness about mental health (but also about struggles in general). Appreciate all of you are acknowledging the struggle. A big reason for me is that I think there is a tendency, sometimes, of the uninitiated to think “What did they do wrong” when they hear of struggle. It’s a trap when one has been lucky (so far) and to imagine that there is more control (eat the right thing and you won’t get cancer; have dinner every day as a family and no one will have mental health struggles; . . . .).

    I agree that boys are not worse at communicating now and really do believe that the work that we are doing now to free our boys from boxes does have an effect. My son recently watched “The Mask You Live In” with his language arts class. His verdict: yes, the mask is very real. But, he also felt that he had ways out of the boy box. He’s an even keeled child, and, one who does understand his emotions to know how to regulate (and, so, as Cranbery states, he is not someone to pressure into revealing feelings he might not be having). But even-keeled boys need to know there is help when they are feeling rocky, too. I’m a believe in a certain amount of stoicism (for the people it does not harm) but also think one has to have measures for potential harm.


    1. I also have an extremely chill, low-maintenance teen boy.

      However, he was only remote 9 weeks in the spring and a couple weeks during the 2020-2021 school year, so we haven’t really been stress-tested. He’s also had tennis with friends ever since the pandemic started. (It felt risky at the beginning, but that was one of our better decisions.)


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