Teen and Young Adult Mental Health in the Pandemic and Beyond: A Q&A with Joseph Vaccaro, PsyD

Teen and Young Adult Mental Health in the Pandemic and Beyond: A Q&A with Joseph Vaccaro, PsyD

As Newport Healthcare’s Executive Director in Southern California, Joseph Vaccaro leads the teams at our teen and young adult treatment centers in Orange County. Joe first joined Newport Academy in 2015 as a family therapist and then moved into a Clinical Director position before taking on his new role in 2020. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) and has extensive experience in the field.

Before joining the Newport team, Joe was a clinical psychologist and then clinical supervisor at Pathways Community Services in Garden Grove, California, supervising and training psychological assistants and interns. Prior to that, he was employed as a psychologist at Sunny Hills Behavioral Health Incorporated in Fullerton, California. Joe completed his postdoctoral residency at Long Beach Job Corps in Long Beach, California, where he provided individual and group clinical supervision to doctoral candidates and practicum interns.

In this Q&A, Joe discusses the impact of the pandemic on teen and young adult mental health and treatment, and the unique challenges this demographic faces, now and into the future.

What do you see as the most important components of effective mental health treatment?

Compassion—Our teens and young adults sometimes struggle to show compassion to their parents, their peers, and, most importantly, themselves. When we offer them compassion, they learn that they can also forgive themselves for whatever mistakes they have made or struggles they have experienced, and extend that forgiveness to others, too.

Authenticity—There is no greater attribute in therapy than being authentic. That includes being authentic in our struggles, authentic in communication, and authentic to self. Being authentic in the therapy process allows the client, the family, and the clinical team to create treatment that is meaningful and effective.

Patience—The teen and young adult years can be challenging, and patience is required of parents, caregivers, and healthcare providers. Treatment professionals also need to extend that patience to ourselves. It’s hard to care for others and be patient with them if we’re not practicing self-care as well.

Connection—When young people are struggling emotionally, maintaining an authentic connection to those around them becomes overwhelming and laborious. The connections we build with them act as reminders of how important and meaningful relationships can be. Effective treatment helps teens and young adults create connection to themselves, to their loved ones, and to their environment and community.

Progression—Therapy is work. Through the struggles and the growth, people feel happier, relationships improve, and life gets better. Sometimes progress can first produce more anxiety, discomfort, and unknowns, but over time, the client will learn to have greater control over how they feel and how they experience and interact with the world.

What are some of the ways that the pandemic may ultimately change the mental healthcare field?

With more people experiencing trauma, anxiety, and depression, there is an increased awareness of mental health issues, which is ultimately positive. More people have an understanding now of what it feels like to have these struggles impact your life, and that leads to a reduction in stigma related to diagnosis and treatment.

In addition, the necessity for telehealth during this time has shown that it is possible to effectively deliver mental healthcare remotely. The realities of the pandemic have forced the field to look at therapy differently and to recognize what can be accomplished through a video session. Telehealth is much more accepted now among both clients and clinicians. And it is a much more accessible way to deliver services, especially for people with limited time and/or transportation.

While there is certainly power in face-to-face therapeutic connections, the benefits of this mode far outweigh the negatives. For those who are able to come into an office when it is safe to do so, that should always be an option. But for those who cannot, telehealth allows them to receive the treatment they need.

How will the pandemic impact today’s generation of teens and young adults?

The impact will be multifaceted. Along with losing social interaction with peers, adolescents have lost the support of teachers and other adult mentors, in school and in the workplace. These are the people outside of the family who make a positive difference in young people’s lives and kindle their creativity and passion. Moreover, young people who are living at home in a dysfunctional family unit are more isolated than ever. As we gradually rebound from this time in history, the mental healthcare field needs to be aware of the repercussions for this demographic in particular.

On the positive side from a mental health standpoint, there is an opportunity for this generation to build resilience through post-traumatic growth. Getting through this—as an individual, a family, a society—can potentially give people the sense that they can accomplish more, with less fear. I am also hopeful that families who have spent more quality time at home together than ever before will recognize the mental health benefits of this increased interaction, and prioritize those connections on an ongoing basis.

Beyond the pandemic, how would you describe the unique challenges of teens and young adults at this time in history?

Adolescence in general is a period of turmoil and growth. Even the healthiest teens and young adults experience self-esteem issues, self-doubt, struggles with identity, and pressures to live up to their own and their parents’ expectations. But in the 21st century, they are constantly inundated with social media and other outside forces. There are different pressures on them now than what we experienced even 20 or 30 years ago. Our brains are adept at adapting to new technology, but the technology we have today is a huge leap from what past generations had to adjust to. This group of teens and young adults are essentially the guinea pigs, the test subjects for this new social globalization we are experiencing. When you complicate that with mental health issues and feelings of low self-worth, it significantly compounds the situation.

Another aspect of adolescent mental health I am concerned with is redefining the concept of self-esteem. What does self-esteem really mean? Are there ways we can help young people develop a sense of self that is less about external achievement and more about inner self-worth? Families often assume that low self-esteem is something that can be “fixed” in treatment, and it’s important for both kids and parents to understand that developing a strong sense of self is a lifetime task.

What is most rewarding for you about working with this demographic?

I love being part of a young person’s process of positive change at this pivotal point in their life. Older adults can experience significant changes that make the rest of their life more rewarding, but early intervention expedites this process. Successful treatment outcomes ensure that young people don’t have to keep making same mistakes and facing the same challenges as they age.

During my time as a family therapist, I have had so many meaningful experiences and relationships with clients and families. But really, it is watching the client and the parent start to reconnect that is so rewarding. I find it especially satisfying to help parents grow and change, and to realize that they are key to their child’s healing.