In late 2022, The Atlantic invited Counseling In Schools Executive Director Kevin Dahill-Fuchel to discuss, “Responding to the Youth Mental Health Crisis.” Alongside Kate Julian from The Atlantic, Kevin was joined in the discussion by Mia A. Smith-Bynum, Senior Director for Science Equity, Diversity & Inclusion of the American Psychological Association. Together they explored and elaborated on their perspectives on this crisis.
The conversation around youth mental health has taken on greater urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic has been particularly harsh on young people, and the suicide rate for young people has doubled. Moreover, a significant number of high schoolers report feeling persistently sad or hopeless. Addressing the crisis requires a multi-faceted approach, including early intervention, addressing systemic issues, and promoting positive psychology and mental wellness.
Early Intervention: The Key to Reducing Lifelong Suffering
Childhood mental health issues typically start during the childhood years, and capturing and treating them early can help children learn to their maximum potential and support their development. Early intervention is crucial in reducing the chances of a lifetime of suffering. Moreover, mental health issues can have a significant impact on academic performance and social development.
Systemic Issues: The Pandemic Has Exposed and Exacerbated Existing Challenges
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the issues that were already present in the systems that put pressure on students’ mental well-being. The disproportionate impact on communities of color and the ways in which this speaks to health and child welfare systems highlight these disparities. Additionally, remote learning has helped reveal issues that were previously hidden from view. At Counseling In Schools we’ve seen this first-hand. An example that comes to mind involves a young girl in middle school who had been moved to live with her paternal grandfather after her grandmother became sick. Nobody realized that the relationship that the young girl had with her grandfather was leaving her feeling neglected and unsupported. Issues that once seemed perhaps under the surface or simply neglected were forced to the forefront. Addressing these systemic issues requires a comprehensive approach that includes addressing income segregation, residential segregation, and access to mental health care.
Black Children and the Mental Health Crisis: Addressing the Disparities
Black children have experienced an increased suicide rate compared to children of the same age in other racial groups. Income segregation and residential segregation have become more persistent, leading to greater stress for children. Social media is a significant source of stress for Black children as they are exposed to videos of Black people being killed by the police, which is a source of anxiety. While immediate intervention is needed to address this issue, we also need more research. The discussion of social media and mental health requires its own, deeper exploration, but we’re finding it’s often difficult for adult support systems to understand just how complex it can be. While on the one hand, Black children are being exposed to unvarnished violence on TikTok or Instagram, there is also increased peer and social pressures. With social media, young people are constantly exposed to a barrage of information and images that can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and anxiety. There is pressure to present a perfect image of oneself online, and this can be particularly challenging for young people who are still developing their sense of identity.
Yet on the other hand, social media can provide a platform for young people to connect with others who share similar experiences and struggles, and where they can find support and understanding from others who are going through similar things. This can be especially helpful for those who may not have access to in-person support groups or who may feel isolated in their daily lives.
This tension and these concepts can be difficult to fully understand among older generations who often presume all social media is problematic for youth, or conversely aren’t attentive enough to its potential problems..
Access to Mental Health Care: Schools as Crucial Access Points
Youth of color consistently have less access to mental health care, making their schools crucial potential access points for addressing this crisis. Schools should provide resources and support for students, and teachers and staff should be trained to identify signs of mental health issues and connect students with the appropriate resources.
Promoting Positive Psychology: The Power of Mind-Body Connection
Positive psychology on mental health and well-being can rewire the brain to focus on better things, which can lead to better mental health and overall quality of life. Mental health wellness affects everything else in one’s life and leads to a good mood, good relationships, healthy eating habits, and the energy to maintain a good quality of life. Chronic stress is a significant risk factor for the development of different kinds of diseases, which can accelerate the disease and aging process. Mental health interventions implemented early can provide significant benefits.
The Importance of Focusing on the Positive: Shifting Focus to Beautiful Things in Life
Focusing on positive thoughts and feelings can help to focus on beautiful things in life, even seemingly “small” things, which can have a profound effect on one’s mental health. This is another area where the relationship with youth and social media is dynamic: social media can provide a way for young people to express themselves creatively and artistically. This can be a positive outlet for managing stress and promoting mental well-being as they share their artwork, poetry, or music as a way to cope with difficult emotions and connect with others who appreciate their work. Mental health wellness is a mind-body phenomenon that feeds into everything else in one’s life. It is essential to recognize that mental health is not only the absence of mental illness but also the presence of positive emotions, behaviors, and attitudes.
Data Collection and Sharing: A Call for Action
The lack of data on mental health issues in schools is a concern, and there needs to be an initiative or push to collect and share this data. Local institutions charged with being responsible for mental health are where changes need to be made. Giving students the help they need and being open about mental health issues is essential.
Addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis Requires a Comprehensive Approach
In conclusion, the youth mental health crisis is a significant concern that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The high suicide rates among young people, particularly youth of color, highlight the urgent need for immediate intervention and comprehensive mental health care access. Early intervention is essential in reducing the chances of a lifetime of suffering, and schools can be crucial access points for addressing this crisis. Positive psychology and mental health interventions implemented early can provide significant benefits, rewiring the brain to focus on better things and leading to better mental health and overall quality of life. It is essential to focus on mental health wellness as a mind-body thing that feeds into everything else in one’s life, such as mood, healthy relationships, and healthy habits. Finally, the lack of data on mental health issues in schools is a concern, and local institutions charged with being responsible for mental health need to make changes. Giving students the help they need and being open about mental health issues are essential steps toward addressing the youth mental health crisis. Let us work together to prioritize the mental well-being of our youth and build a better future for all.