The State of Youth Mental Health: How Can We Turn the Tide?
As our country invests unprecedented amounts of funding into the mental health system with the implementation of the new shortcode for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline “988” and critical expansion of on-the-ground supports like mobile crisis units, the inequalities that exist in the current infrastructure are not going away. In fact, the fissures in our system are becoming more apparent. If we continue to pour resources into the current bifurcated system, which fails to meet the needs of youth and marginalized communities, we risk deepening the divide between those who receive help and those who do not.
Our current infrastructure for mental health is not meeting the needs of our population because it was not built to sustain the level of crisis we see today. Emergency rooms are overflowing with youth psychiatric cases and deaths of despair are at unforeseen levels. For decades, the stigma of mental health has kept these disorders in the shadows and thus, on the fringes of our medical mainstream. Our medical providers do not know where to send individuals that are diagnosed or screen positively for serious mental illness. Thus, the diseases often go untreated and not covered by medical insurance.
However, with the scale of the problem escalating, we have seen the national consciousness evolve to acknowledge this public health crisis. In the 2022 Presidential State of the Union address, President Biden stated mental health as part of the administration’s 4-point bipartisan “unity agenda.” This historic commitment to address mental health has enabled Congress to pass unprecedented funding and make vital strides like the recent investment in community health workers to bolster mental health providers in accessible locations. With this momentum, we have the opportunity to reinvent the crisis intervention system, establish equitable services and turn the tide on youth suicide.
In order to do this, we must meet people where they are. We must provide mental health care in schools, in primary care offices, and connect youth to crisis resources through social media and gaming platforms. Recent funding allocations have been made to pediatric mental health care programs across the country. However by and large, this is not where the federal and state funding is going. We need to redirect resources to intervene early when young people first reach out for support or show signs of mental distress, and not when they are at stage 4 of their disease state.
We know that the system is not equitable and that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth are at greater risk for mental health issues and suicide. To address these disparities intentionally, we need to rethink how people access mental health treatment. Instead of just investing in the institutions that deliver medical care, we must also address adverse childhood experiences and social determinants of health, which determine severity of risk for mental illness. We can and should work on improving these factors through investment in family and community resources.
We also need a multitude of support services for young people that are peer-led and founded in lived experience. There is no silver bullet and no one program that will meet the needs of every individual. This is why we need a comprehensive response that encompasses culturally competent services and meets people where they are. For example, most youth are not using their devices to call for help or telling their parents what keeps them up at night. They are texting, looking at TikToks and video games online. So while increasing access to pediatric mental health care is critical, young people will continue to fall through the cracks if we do not meet them where they are.
We must create resources and build awareness in order to reduce stigma with the ultimate goal of providing a safe place for our youth to reach out for support. We must build these resources to actually meet the needs of communities. This means integrating people from those communities, incorporating their experiences, and responding with cultural competence and humility. Access to warm texting lines, crisis intervention support through social media, online peer support groups and screening tools are good places to expand our efforts.
We can and we must show up for the next generation by evolving how we invest and treat mental health.
Crisis Text Line is here for young people 24/7. Please text HELLO to 741741 or 442-SUPPORT in WhatsApp to be connected to a live, trained volunteer Crisis Counselor or text HOLA to 741741 or 442-AYUDAME in WhatsApp for Spanish.