Opinion: To solve the youth mental health crisis, stop looking to adults

Opinion: To solve the youth mental health crisis, stop looking to adults

Davis is Associate Vice President of Peer and Youth Advocacy at Mental Health America and lives in Philadelphia. Do it and Relax are youth advocates and board members of the California Children’s Trust and the California Coalition for Youth. Do lives in Anaheim and Chila lives in San Diego.

We have a youth mental health crisis and young people and their families are increasingly seeking help. Yet for many there is limited help available.

The Biden administration and the US surgeon general have called for large-scale, strategic action to address the growing needs of teens and young adults. Their recommendations include things like integrating mental health services into primary care, equipping schools with mental health education, and relying on digital and telehealth to expand access to services. While these are essential, a key group is often left out of conversations about addressing youth mental health – the youth themselves.

When young people are engaged and supported, real and meaningful change happens.

Mira Mesa High School student Kathryn Delgado noticed that her friends were struggling with their mental health but had limited resources and support. To address this, she partnered with other students to create the SWEAR (Student Health, Education and Resources) Committee, a student-led initiative that advocates for the mental health and well-being of all students. Through SWEAR leadership, students collaborate with school district leaders to create mental health and wellness education, ally and leadership training, and district-wide initiatives such as community forums and marches that empower students to help each other each other and create communities that are open to mental health.

Once given the right support and resources, young people like Catherine can serve as critical leaders and supporters of other young people in their communities, whether it’s talking to a neighbor or teammate, or as part of systems that impact youth such as education and mental health .

To equip young people with the skills and information to create more open and mental health-friendly relationships and communities, we recommend that policymakers, philanthropists, and other leaders focused on addressing this crisis consider the role of teens and young adults on three levels .

First, communities need to train all young people with the skills and language to talk about mental health and support their friends. Teens and young adults are often the first to notice that something might be happening to someone in their network, whether it’s in person or online. They need to have the language and knowledge to respond to their friends and navigate difficult conversations about seeking help or simply needing to share with someone what they are going through.

Second, young people need to be empowered to promote their mental health wherever they spend their time. In a 2020 Mental Health America survey, making mental health skills part of their daily lives was one of the top three ways youth said they wanted support, behind access to mental health professionals and interruptions or absences from school time. Young people can learn how to promote mental health and support their peers in all the places they spend their time, whether through online gaming communities, at the YMCA or at school. In fact, thanks to student leadership, the state of California recently committed $10 million to implement and study this type of partnership model to address mental health in high schools across the state.

Finally, we need to invest in youth peer specialists in all youth service systems. Youth Peer Support Specialists are young adults who have experienced mental health issues, trauma or substance use and are trained and often certified by their state to support other young people struggling with their mental health. Youth Peer Specialists can provide support to young people in dealing with whatever comes of young people trying to cope with their mental health conditions. Youth peer specialists also serve as a source and role model of hope for teens and young adults who may feel hopeless about their ability to grow and thrive.

Since 2017, Mental Health America has been working with young people across the US to create programs and initiatives that fill gaps in current mental health resources. Teens and young adults are using their platforms to start conversations about mental health and drive change. They experience first-hand the limitations of our current approach and investment in mental health. And increasingly they are leading demands for change and inclusion in decisions to create a better present and future for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

If we are to improve our ability to address the youth mental health crisis (and create opportunities for increased interest in careers in our very limited behavioral health workforce), we need to see young people as essential partners in coping and improving the mental health of their peers. We need urgent action and much more investment in youth mental health, but we will fail young people if we don’t listen to them and help them build what they want.

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