skip to content

“We Do Have Good Solutions!” What We Need to Do to Support Youth Mental Health

September 30, 2021

Filed in: Health & Wellbeing

Image for Untitled_design_(3).jpg

Youth mental health is having a moment.

Anxiety, depression, and loneliness all increased among adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth, and the public noticed. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka put the issue in the headlines, and reminded us all that even superstar athletes need to prioritize their wellbeing.

This increased recognition that mental and behavioral health require care and attention just like physical health is a good thing! But there is plenty of work left to do.

“The demand is out of sight,” said Dr. Tom Insel, Psychiatrist, Neuroscientist, and Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) during a recent panel discussion for the Commonwealth Club of California. “But the services have not been there.”

In fact, roughly 60% of young people in distress are not getting professional care.

So we have solutions, but how do we get them to young people? The panel had ideas.

Gather very specific data. Targeted solutions require knowing who is most at risk and what their circumstances are. “Disaggregate data by race, gender, sexual orientation, and even ZIP code,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, child and adolescent psychiatrist and Immediate Past President of the American Medical Association.

“The solutions for Marin County, California, won’t work for a small coal-mining county in West Virginia,” said Dr. Harris.

Integrate care. “We need to stop dividing physical versus mental health,” said Arthy Suresh, former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and co-founder of the Mind Body Ambassador Program at school. This means, for example, having both medical and behavioral health clinicians working as a team to support young patients in one primary care office.

Increase supply. Dr. Insel pointed out that we don’t just need greater numbers of mental health workers, we need more mental health workers that represent the demography of the country and who can relate to the issues of kids and families in a neighborhood.

Recruiting a more diverse mental and behavioral health workforce won’t just happen on its own. “We have Teach for America,” he said. “Maybe we need Coach for California, and we do that through the community college system.”

Improve messaging. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental health challenges, particularly in communities of color. We need trusted messengers within specific communities of young people to deliver factual information about mental health.

And when we talk about the problems, we should always connect them to the fact that we have effective treatments. “There are no lack of solutions, and we should focus on that!” said Dr. Insel.

Provide services the way young people access them. Not all young people can make it to an in-person therapy appointment across town, and many lack the privacy to even take a phone call from home. Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, pointed out that for reasons related to comfort and privacy, trans and non-binary youth in particular prefer to access services by digital means (like texting) rather than by phone.

Helplines like the national “988” program (which creates a National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, similar to 911 for other emergencies) need to be equally accessible as chat and text services to best serve the youth population.

The COVID pandemic has elevated the issue of youth mental health in ways that create an opportunity for all of us who support young people. We have solutions! We just need the thoughtful investment to implement them.

back to top