You might have heard that we’re in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, but what does that mean, exactly? New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was released in March 2022, and the numbers show that U.S. youth are experiencing high levels of poor mental health. What’s behind the rise in mental health conditions among youth – and what can we do about it?
What Is the Youth Mental Health Crisis?
Before they released this new data in 2022, prior CDC data indicated that mental health among high school students was already getting worse before the advent of COVID, but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.
According to the new data, in 2021:
- 37% of high school students reported that they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
- 44% reported that they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
- More than half (55%) reported that they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student.
- 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting the student.
- 29% reported that a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.
Some groups have been affected more. LGBTQ+ students reported higher levels of poor mental health, emotional abuse by a parent or caregiver, and suicide attempts, compared to their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts. Female students were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide compared to male students. Over a third (36%) of students said they experienced racism before or during the pandemic. The highest levels were reported among Asian students (64%) and Black students and students of multiple races (both 55%). Experiences of racism among youth have been linked to poor mental health and academic performance, as well as lifelong health risk behaviors.
What Are the Causes of the Youth Mental Health Crisis?
COVID-19, and the disruption, isolation and loss that came with it, has certainly had a negative impact on the state of youth mental health, but, even before the pandemic, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among youth aged 10-14.
Some of the reasons today’s children, teens and young adults are struggling so much with their mental health include:
Social media can be helpful in many ways – keeping us in touch with the people we care about, giving us a way to share knowledge and experiences, and giving us a platform for self-expression. But it also can be very detrimental to mental health, particularly for young people. Social media can make us compare ourselves to others. We may realize that the people we know are probably only posting about the good stuff that happens to them on social media – and that’s why their lives seem perfect, when ours isn’t – but, for most of us, it still doesn’t stop the comparison.
Young people, especially young girls, are also susceptible to the images of influencers, which promote unrealistic body expectations. Modern social media, especially platforms like TikTok, also tends to focus on challenges – resulting in a pressure to perform on social media. Besides social media, the fact that we’re always connected via our smartphones is a lot of pressure for many of us, especially young people.
Legislation Affecting Certain Groups
Many states have passed legislation that penalizes or takes rights away from certain vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ+ individuals and women and girls. This is a major contributing factor to the high levels of depression and anxiety experienced by today’s youth.
Youth are experiencing a lot of stress these days. Some of the causes of stress in young people include adversity, peer pressure, increasing school requirements and workloads, pressure from parents, and exploration of identity.
Some Groups Are at a Greater Risk for Mental Health Conditions
Adolescents who experience emotional or physical abuse at home, bullying, violence, racism, harsh parenting, socioeconomic concerns, or other severe problems are at increased risk for mental health conditions. Youth who are living with a chronic illness, autism, or an intellectual disability also have a higher risk of developing a mental health condition.
What Are We Doing About the Youth Mental Health Crisis?
In December 2021, the Surgeon General issued an advisory outlining the youth mental health crisis and steps we can take to address it. In July 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced a plan to tackle the crisis. The two actions discussed in the plan intended to “strengthen school-based mental health services and address the youth mental health crisis” are:
- An allocation of nearly $300 million to support mental health services in schools
- Encouraging state governors to invest more in school-based mental health services
The funding that goes to schools is intended to provide:
- The expansion of mental health services through full-service community schools
- Trauma-informed services
- The implementation of community- and school-based strategies to mitigate community violence and its impact on students
An additional $1.7 billion was set aside for:
- Expanding community-based behavioral health services
- Enhancing delivery of school-based mental health services
- Improving oversight of Medicaid’s early and periodic screening, diagnostic and treatment benefit
- Increasing access to children’s mental health services
- Expanding mental health training for pediatric providers
- Training first responders in how to recognize and safely respond to individuals with a mental health condition
- Building awareness of and access to mental health services
- Providing support after traumatic events
- Improving conditions for student learning
- Expanding access to out-of-school programs
- Enhancing the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
The long-term impacts of the strategy are yet to be seen, but it’s a promising start. Mitchell J. Prinstein, PhD, the American Psychological Association’s Chief Science Officer, says:
“To address this crisis, we must acknowledge that our youth mental health system is fundamentally flawed…Our adult-centric mental health system was built following World War II – a time when we invested substantially in treating returning veterans…But this approach needs reexamining…We must improve access to mental health care for children and youth.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year olds, and third-leading cause of death among teens and young adults aged 15-25, and suicide rates among children 10 and older have climbed significantly since 2007. These numbers illustrate the severity of the crisis, and the urgency we need to apply in addressing it.
What You Can Do to Address the Youth Mental Health Crisis
We all have a responsibility to improve our society, and you can do your own part to address the crisis, even if you’re not a parent.
Listen to Youth
When a child or teen is experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, the adults in their lives tend to brush it off as a normal and expected part of adolescence. Parents often see sadness, irritability or anxiety as “dramatics,” “teen angst,” or “overreacting.” But mental illness is real and has real consequences, and the mental health of children and teens is just as important as that of adults. One of the most helpful things we can do for a youth struggling with their mental health is to really listen to their point of view, and to be sure to never minimize their feelings.
Cultivate an Environment that Recognizes that Mental Health is Just as Important as Physical Health
If your child was injured, sick, or experiencing a high fever, you’d do something about it, right? So why should their mental health be any different?
In regards to the way our healthcare system addresses mental health, Dr. Prinstein says:
“We must abandon the antiquated notion that mental and physical health are addressed by discrete systems. They are inextricably linked. Science in the past decade has proven that psychological stress influences our immune systems and the expression of our DNA and is linked to inflammatory disease. Yet the separation of primary care and mental health care has created two unequal standards.”
Foster a Judgment-Free Safe Space
If you’re a parent, caregiver, teacher, community leader, or otherwise interact with youth, you can help by creating a safe space for them. Make it clear that you won’t judge them for whatever they may tell you, and that you will accept them for who they are and are here to help.
Encourage Healthy Habits
If you have children, teens, or young adults in your life, encourage healthy habits that contribute to physical and mental wellbeing and positive life choices. Encourage your child to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, practice healthy social media usage, socialize, get involved with an activity or volunteer, and regularly check in on and address their mental health and stress levels.
Even if you don’t ever interact with youth, you can still do one of the most important things someone can do when it comes to addressing the crisis – spread awareness. Through social media or whatever platform you’re most comfortable with, you can share this blog post, statistics on youth mental health or your own personal experiences. Maybe someone you know has no idea that children as young as 10 are dying by suicide at a high rate, or maybe your story will resonate with someone who hasn’t asked for help due to stigma. Often, it helps a lot for a young person to hear that someone else has experienced what they’re experiencing. You can make a difference, simply by sharing what you’ve learned, or your story.
Region Five is Your Local Point-of-Access for Mental Health Services for the Whole Family
At Region Five, we oversee your regional community service boards (CSBs), which provide your local community with mental health, developmental disability, and substance abuse recovery services. Our CSBs provide specialized services for children and teens, neurodivergent individuals, and other populations.
We also provide your local access to the nationwide 988 crisis line. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, or any mental health crisis that is causing mental distress or impacting daily life, you can get help immediately by dialing or texting 988. If you do not have a phone number with a 757 area code, you can reach someone faster by dialing 757-656-7755. Our trained counselors are available anytime, 24/7, to offer support and resources that can help. There are specialized services available for LGBTQ+ individuals, veterans, and other groups.