How Science and Humanity Can Help Our Youth Mental Health Crisis
Our children are definitely not alright.
If the future of this world is in the hands of young people, we’re tolerating and even cultivating a society that thrusts unimaginable burdens upon them. Just look at the proliferation of deadly drugs like fentanyl, an ever-increasing epidemic of school shootings, climate change and extreme weather events, political strife, a global pandemic, and unregulated access to harmful content and technology platforms.
Unconvinced? Anyone over forty could ask themselves one question to understand the level of crisis that young people face with their mental health: Is growing up more emotionally difficult now than when I was young? Of course, the answer is a resounding yes.
According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents jumped 31% in 2020, compared with 2019. In February and March of this year, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher among girls aged 12–17 than during the same period in 2019.
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency.
On top of social isolation and family instability, the medical groups said, “more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted.” As reported by The New York Times, over the past generation, a mental health crisis has been brewing among Black youths, one that very few people have spoken about publicly. Self-reported suicide attempts rose nearly 80 percent among Black adolescents from 1991 to 2019, while the prevalence of attempts did not change significantly among those of other races and ethnicities.
There are positive policy developments, however. The American Rescue Plan Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, combined with other 2020 pandemic relief funds for schools, amounts to more than $190 billion in education and health grants available over the next four years, some of which can be spent on mental health.
A few years ago, I served in a leadership position at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. I was able to work alongside the country’s top clinicians as they provided treatment to children, teens, and young adults. I was able to learn from neuroscientists seeking to understand the underpinnings of conditions like anxiety, depression, and other disorders so they could identify biomarkers and develop better medicines and therapies.
We created a public awareness campaign called #MyYoungerSelf for the month of May that featured celebrities making one-minute videos with what they would tell their younger selves as they encountered a mental health challenge in their youth. As it turned out, many celebrities had stories to tell. There were authors, actors, athletes, comedians, musicians, TV personalities and social media influencers — 125 in all. And their powerful stories resonated deeply. The media and public response to the campaign was enormous: the videos were picked up and republished exponentially to garner more than 3.5 billion impressions in just one month.
The videos often concluded with a few words of wisdom: just talk to someone. If there’s one simple truth to understand about mental health, it’s that no one should suffer alone and in silence. As the founder and president of the Child Mind Institute liked to say, these disorders are “real, common, and very treatable.” But the first step — opening up and sharing your feelings with another human being — is the hardest and most elusive.
In recent years, researchers have been making incredible progress toward answering big questions about the development of the human brain. A recent study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology found evidence of a pathway whereby the use of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin increased spirituality, and in turn, led to better regulation of emotions.
But advocacy organizations can do more to communicate these stories of innovation and success. They can do more to connect young people so they can tell their inspiring stories of hope and courage. Shared human experiences are the foundation of many successful support groups and 12-step programs. Bold, daring campaigns are needed to reach teens and young adults to let them know that they are not alone, and that there is help. They can be guided to take an action to reach out to a parent, a sibling, a friend or professional.
Our challenges are big; let’s think bigger. We can disrupt the status quo. We can meet young people where they spend most of their time with constructive, healthy content. Bringing the science and humanity to life in platforms of social media isn’t just smart branding. It strikes at the core of many organizational missions.
Suicide Hotline 800–273-TALK (8255)
If you or someone you know is in crisis, fighting an addiction, being bullied, a victim of domestic violence, or struggling with depression and feelings of suicide, there are options. Help is available. Speak with someone today.
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, at no cost, 24 Hours a day. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from our secure online platform. The volunteer Crisis Counselor will help you move from a hot moment to a cool moment. https://www.crisistextline.org/