5 ways to help alleviate the youth mental health epidemic
As my colleague walked in the front door of the LiveWell office in Brevard County, Florida, I could tell something was unusual about her demeanor.
Usually, she bounces in with Energizer Bunny-type intensity; but on this day, she was different.
She seemed downtrodden and stressed out. I walked over to greet her, smiled, and tentatively asked, “What’s wrong?”
Her response didn’t surprise me: “Mike, it’s just getting worse out there.”
As we continued our conversation in the conference room, our business meeting quickly turned into a support group session where two mental health professionals lamented about the state of our culture.
We quickly turned to a discussion about how much children and adolescents in particular are struggling.
The main focal point of our hour-long conversation was how we are struggling to manage the intensity of depression, anxiety and addictions that many of our kids are scheduling appointments for at our office.
The conclusion of our conversation confirmed my friend's first words an hour earlier: two clinicians with decades of experience are convinced that the mental health issues occurring, especially in children and adolescents, is increasing rapidly.
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Here's how it's getting worse
Nearly 100% of my closest colleagues in the field share the same opinion: the mental health issues faced by children and adolescents are at epidemic proportions, and adults must act decisively to protect our kids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from March 2020 to October 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those ages 12 to 17 compared with 2019 emergency department visits.
From the beginning of the pandemic we have seen an incredible uptick in mental health crises for our youth.
This statistic doesn’t compare to the number of kids who struggle silently and fly under our radars.
These emergency room admissions include suicidal ideation, homicidal intent and severe depressive and anxious symptoms.
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Researchers at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago surveyed 1,000 parents around the country and found that 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, while 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to occur for their child.
The state of mental health in children and adolescents becomes clear when you them directly.
A national survey of 3,300 high schoolers conducted in the spring of 2020 found close to one-third of students felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual.
From the archive, on children's mental health: What to know a year into the pandemic
The pandemic's impact is no shocker
The stress and anxiety created by COVID-19 exacerbated a trend already well underway before the spring of 2020.
A research article published in October 2021 by George Barna entitled “Millennials in America” showed that close to 75% of young adults feel as if they have no purpose or meaning in their life.
Two out of three admitted to avoiding interaction with someone if it was likely to produce conflict.
Of the nine cultural influencer categories tested, entities like business leaders and government officials, none of them were trusted by a majority of the young adults to “always or almost always tell the truth or do what is right.”
The acute mental health issues faced by our children and adolescents are merely a reflection of an underlying uncertainty about the things that matter most in life: relationships (who can I trust) and meaning (why am I here).
Who's at fault?
Our children are a reflection of what we, the adults, have taught them over the years about how to find meaning in life, identify who you can trust in relationships and manage conflict and other challenging situations.
If we want to look for someone to blame for the state of our world, we need to look no further than the closest mirror.
So what do we do if we’re ready to be a part of the solution and stand up and advocate for the mental health of our kids and our young adults?
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1. Discover meaning and teach it
If there’s anywhere we have failed culturally, it’s in teaching our kids how to find meaning and purpose in this life.
We have to help them find anchor points they can grasp onto in life that provide meaning and purpose apart from what they see on social media.
As a group, they aren’t obsessed with doing things that make a difference in this world or finding peace and joy.
Instead, they’re witnesses to other young people who are gripped by appearances, how many likes clicked on a social media post and how many material possessions they can show off to the world.
If we want to lead our kids toward a different future that isn't characterized by extreme doses of mental health crises, we must start by showing them how to find meaning and purpose in this world.
We must lead by example. So let’s start with the big questions and apply them personally.
How do we find meaning?
How do we wake up each day feeling and knowing that our day has significance and purpose?
If we can’t answer those questions, how can we ever model those behaviors to the kids?
2. Be trustworthy
We can't all go back in time and create honest politicians and business leaders who act with character and integrity.
What can we do? Take personal responsibility to pursue character in our life every day.
We should all decide together that our "yes" will be "yes" and our "no" will be "no," and eliminate the business of being wishy-washy with our decisions.
One of the most powerful definitions of character is who you are when no one is looking.
3. Model emotional regulation, conflict management
The pandemic poured gasoline on the fire and put children in a position where they spent months and even years without dealing with the natural fears and anxieties surrounding face-to-face interactions, disappointing others and conflict.
The solution? Enable our kids to learn how to manage their emotions and normalize healthy conflict resolution.
Familiarize yourself with healthy management of your emotions and conflict, especially as you interact with the children and adolescents you’re trying to influence.
If you lose your cool every time confrontation arises in your relationships, you aren’t exactly helping the kids see that there is a different way to problem solve.
Commit to having hard conversations and managing yourself and your emotions appropriately.
4. Help kids discover hope, help
The first three strategies we have outlined are designed to help address the underlying cultural issues that I believe are part of the catalyst of the young adult mental health crisis.
This fourth strategy is perhaps the most immediate need for kids at this moment.
Our children need adults to encourage, facilitate and normalize getting help for mental health issues.
On the heels of the pandemic, our kids need adults who will help them find help and foster hope in the healing.
Psychologists use the term "psychological first aid" to describe the idea that distress is normal after a traumatic event.
Our youths need some psychological first aid to help them process the COVID-19 disaster.
Rather than treat the psychological distress they’re experiencing as a major disorder, the focus here is to provide support and assistance with natural stress reactions and coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety.
The research is clear, children who receive trauma-focused therapies are much less likely to develop chronic PTSD and other long-term issues.
5. Focus on the future, not the past
It’s easy to read an article like this one and begin to personally beat ourselves up for what we did or didn’t do for the children.
I hope my point is obvious: this article is not to assign blame to anyone for a mental health issue that a child or adolescent you know might be experiencing.
We have failed culturally, and that collective failure is in no way, shape or form, an indictment of any of us for what we have or haven’t done.
Use the information here as motivation to believe that while it is indeed getting worse out there, there’s a path to health that we can all walk together toward a hope-filled future.
In the end, our hope is for our youth to no longer struggle with mental health issues the way they are now, and that as a group, they find a sense of meaning in life and trust in humanity.
Mike Ronsisvalle is a licensed psychologist and the president of LiveWell Behavioral Health, a psychological services agency that provides counseling to clients of all ages and addictions treatment to adolescents and adults. You can find him at www.LiveWellbehavioralhealth.com or call 321-259-1662.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: How we can help alleviate the youth mental health epidemic