Confronting the Youth Mental Health Crisis

3 min read

Between the climate crisis, global conflicts, and mass shootings like a recent one in Lewiston, Maine, young people are growing up in an anxiety-provoking world. It’s no wonder the Surgeon General has declared that we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. While it’s easy to feel helpless, there is room for hope: The Youth Mental Health Research Act has recently been introduced in the House and Senate.

The bipartisan bill (HR 5976 and SB 3060) would authorize $100 million in funding each year for five years towards youth mental health research, allowing for partnerships across federal agencies—NIMH, NIMHD, NICHD—and also focus on how services are delivered to young people.

As a child psychologist and researcher, I know how much we need new research to help us out of the current mental health crisis. A whopping 59 percent of young people reported that they were “very or extremely worried” about climate change, according to a new global study. As another example, Surgeon General Murthy highlights social media as a key contributor to the youth mental health crisis. But it’s not clear how parents, who didn’t grow up facing climate change effects or grappling with social media, can help children navigate these issues. For instance, do young people need new tools for navigating social media? Or should young people stay off social media entirely? Is that even feasible? Most young people cannot fathom a life without social media. About 54 percent of youth say it would be hard to give it up.

Only new research can guide adults on how to support young people as they navigate these realities. To showcase the power of new research, a recent study followed 80 adolescents who had been cyberbullied online. Researchers were able to teach adolescents how to handle cyberbullying and how to get help. Young people in the study reported feeling better and less stressed, and that they were equipped with strategies for how to handle cyber victimization.

An Important Shift
Another key feature of the bill is that it targets research towards the places where young people “live, play, work and learn.” This is an important shift in how psychologists conduct research. Traditionally, psychology research is conducted in labs or university clinics. This means that what we know about therapy is based on situations that don’t translate well to the way children navigate life.

This can have enormous repercussions. As one example, after Hurricane Katrina, a nonprofit project offered families gold-standard therapy treatments for children affected by disasters. The project assigned 118 children with psychological distress to one of two conditions: treatment offered in school, and treatment offered at an offsite clinic. For children offered treatment in schools, 98 percent took up treatment. When it was offered offsite, only 37 percent began treatment. Paying attention to where children live, play, work, and learn matters.

It’s time to reimagine how we approach supporting youth mental health. Our current systems do not work. One-third of high school students experience poor mental health, one in four girls consider attempting suicide, and as many as 80 percent of the young people who need mental health services do not receive services. This is troubling because adolescence is what psychologists call a “window of vulnerability,” meaning a time when mental health needs emerge and treatment can be most powerful in preventing long-term distress. Adolescence is an important window because 50 percent of mental health needs emerge by age 14, while 75 percent will emerge by age 24.

This bill is one way to reimagine supporting youth through our current mental health crisis.

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