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America's national nervous breakdown may not, we must hope, prove irreversible. But it daily grows more difficult to be confident, or to foresee with any clarity what mysterious process might restore society's equilibrium.

"Deaths of despair," a dark alliteration referring to surging mortality rates from suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism — especially among white working-class Americans and to the point of lowering overall U.S. life expectancy — has become a tragic emblem of our troubled times.

Unfortunately, "lives of despair" may be the only equally candid label to describe the apparent quiet desperation of American teenagers, especially girls, according to an unsettling and much-discussed biennial survey of young people published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the startling headlines to emerge in much reporting on The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (based on responses from more than 17,000 high school students nationwide) is that almost 6 out of 10 high school girls in America (57%) report "persistent feelings of hopelessness." Their distress is severe enough that they could not take part in normal activities for periods of weeks. This is twice the level of depression reported by high school boys (high enough at 29%), and sharply higher than it was a decade earlier.

More staggering are the responses these young people give concerning suicide. The survey reports that no less than 30% of high school girls "seriously considered attempting suicide" during 2021, while 13% (more than 1 in 8) said they had actually attempted suicide. Again, these appalling numbers are twice as high as boys reported and sharply increased in recent years.

Some 45% of respondents described as LGBQ+ reported seriously considering suicide.

Not the least disturbing feature of these awful results is the detachment from reality they seem to represent. Suicide rates are tragically high in America, but they don't reflect these levels of reported suicidal intent.

A wholly distinct CDC report shows that the actual suicide rate among U.S. females ages 15-24 is around 6 per 100,000 population, or 0.006%. So if the behavior survey responses are to be taken literally, 5,000 young women "seriously consider" suicide and some 2,100 actually attempt it for every one suicide death.

What's more, while the survey suggests girls are twice as suicidal as boys, actual death by suicide occurs four to five times as often among young males as among young females, according to the CDC statistics.

There could be a measure of reassurance in knowing that the suicidal thoughts being reported by teens may not be quite what they seem. Yet the wretched state of mind that brews such dark fantasies is painful to imagine.

Minnesota state government's own latest Minnesota Student Survey, released in December, similarly reported a "crisis" level of stress and anxiety among public school students, especially girls. The reporting and official analysis on these trends cited the trauma of the COVID pandemic as a key cause. But the increases in "mental health issues" reported here and elsewhere began before the pandemic struck.

More surprising shifts are revealed in the state survey's extensive probing of two traditional arenas for adolescent stress and anxiety — the students' sexual lives, and their sense of personal safety.

In 2013, the survey shows, 93% of female high school juniors identified themselves as "Heterosexual (straight)." In 2022, just 65% of junior girls described themselves that way. (Among boys, the figures went from 95% in 2013 to 88% in 2022.)

The survey first asked about gender identity in 2016, when 98% of junior boys and 97% of junior girls answered no to the question: "Do you consider yourself transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or unsure about your gender identity?"

By 2022, only 90% of 11th grade girls (87% in grades eight and nine) reported that "your gender identity matches your sex assigned at birth." (The figure among junior boys declined to 95%.)

These seem like large changes. Certainly the teen years have always been a time of sexual searching and uncertainty. But when the sexual orientation of young women spontaneously shifts by 30% in a decade, while the proportion reporting an alternative gender identify more than triples in six years, it may not be unreasonable to wonder what's causing it all and what the impact is.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota survey reinforces what a Star Tribune news story recently dubbed "alarm over rising threat of violence in schools," notably in St. Paul. The statewide survey reports that back in 2013, 48% of 11th grade girls said they "strongly agree" that "I feel safe at school." By 2022, among junior girls, that figure had fallen to 18%, well below the 42% who strongly felt safe in their neighborhoods and the 58% who strongly felt safe at home. (The pattern is similar among boys, who report feeling somewhat safer everywhere.)

In short, teens' perceptions of safety weren't great a decade ago, and they have worsened significantly.

Something isn't right. Our children are frightened, confused and depressed. A temptation confronts us all when faced with unsettling revelations of this kind. It's the temptation to carefully ponder the new information before us, re-examine all the evidence and interpretations, and then conclude, with apparent surprise, that it exactly confirms everything we have thought all along.

I'm no different. I could round up my usual suspects — the culprits and causes of our modern social mess that have long appeared particularly villainous to me — and line them up for readers' inspection. But I'm going to go no further with that (this week).

Instead I'll just suggest that America's youthful lives of despair, like its deaths of despair, are symptoms of social disorders that should inspire from each of us drastic action — like considering a new idea or two.

(And if you're already compiling a mental list of new ideas for others to consider, stop and start over.)