When US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, issued an advisory on youth mental health in December 2021, he focused the nation’s attention on a crisis that had been brewing for decades.
While Dr. Murthy acknowledged the significant impact of the pandemic on young people, he also acknowledged that mental health issues among this age group were already prevalent before COVID. In addition, limited access to quality mental healthcare means that young people and families often have no support. Untreated teen and young adult mental health issues often continue to get worse—until a mental health crisis catalyzes an ER visit. The advisory noted the increasing number of teen emergency room visits for mental health.
The Surgeon General also cited CDC statistics showing a 40 percent increase over the last decade in the number of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Moreover, suicide rates among teens and young adults have gone up by 57 percent since 2007.
What Young People Face Today
The advisory includes research pointing to a variety of factors that are detrimental to youth mental health:
- The negative psychological effects of social media
- Increased academic pressure
- Childhood trauma and other traumatic experiences
- Alcohol and substance abuse among teens and young adults
- Societal issues, such as income inequality, racism, gun violence, and climate change
Dr. Murthy described these as uniquely hard to navigate, and called the mental health effects of these challenges devastating. “I believe that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a country to rebuild in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first, and strengthens our connections to each other,” he wrote. And healthcare and school professionals can make an incredibly important contribution to this effort.
5 Actions for Health Professionals and Healthcare Organizations
“Our health care system today is not set up to optimally support the mental health and wellbeing of children and youth,” Dr. Murthy wrote. The advisory urges healthcare providers to take the following actions.
Recognize that prevention is the most effective treatment.
To improve care for all youth, the advisory urges the implementation of trauma-informed care principles and prevention strategies. Healthcare professionals can educate families not only at clinics and hospitals but also through working with schools, childcare facilities, social services, justice, and public health systems to establish prevention programs.
Work toward making mental health screenings more accessible for youth.
Screenings can be done during well visits, physicals, vaccination appointments, as well as schools, ERs, and other settings. Moreover, screenings should take into account the many ways in which mental health challenges can manifest, including behavioral and physical symptoms and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Address the mental health needs of parents, caregivers, and other family members.
Because the family’s health and well-being directly affect the mental health of children, it’s essential to also address parents’ and caregivers’ needs. Screenings should seek to identify potential mental health and substance use issues, violence in the home, and food or housing challenges.
Partner with community organizations to better serve young people.
To get children the care they need, clinical staff can collaborate with systems such as child welfare, juvenile justice, and hospital-based violence intervention programs. For example, schools and hospitals can work together to create school-supported urgent care clinics. New payment and care delivery models are desperately needed, the advisory noted.
Collaborate to offer culturally sensitive care through a team approach.
Multidisciplinary teams are often necessary in order to provide healthcare that addresses the needs of specific populations. Providers should receive education around culturally competent care.
The advisory also notes how important it is for mental healthcare professionals to nurture their own well-being in order to avoid burnout and continue delivering compassionate care.
5 Actions for Educators and School Staff
As the place where young people spend so much of their time, schools have the potential to play a major role in youth mental health. While school can be a stressful environment, it can also provide safety, positive role models, and opportunities for connection and building self-esteem. Moreover, school staff are often the first to notice students’ behavioral issues and can serve as referral sources. Here are some of the actions that the advisory recommends for school professionals and school systems.
Help create “positive, safe, and affirming school environments.”
This can be done through developing anti-bullying policies, talking to students and families about mental health, using inclusive language and behaviors, and considering measures that would support student well-being, such as a later start to the school day.
Incorporate social-emotional learning approaches and programs.
Schools can implement evidence-based approaches to promote healthy development. Specific learning programs include PATHS, Sources of Strength, and Life Skills Training.
Learn to recognize possible warning signs of mental health issues.
School professionals should know how to identify the red flags of youth mental health issues. Once potential issues are recognized, they can work with colleagues, such as counselors or nurses, to connect students to treatment services.
Provide programs and support to meet student mental health needs.
Such programs can include screenings, educational resources, staff trainings, and partnerships between schools and providers.
Work toward creating a school environment that protects the well-being of staff as well as students.
In order to continue serving as compassionate mentors, teachers and other staff need realistic workloads, manageable student-to-staff ratios, and competitive wages and benefits.
We’re Here to Help
Are you a parent, school professional, or mental healthcare provider? Newport Healthcare is dedicated to offering support to families and professionals to help create positive change for young people. Contact us today to learn more about how we can serve as a resource for your clients, family, or school.