Youth Mental Health Requires Increased Attention

A child hugs an adult while closing their eyes

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While mental health is an important issue for people of all ages, recent trends point to a youth mental health crisis across the United States. Specifically, rates of substance dependency, anxiety, ADHD and depression are increasing among young people. Many experts point to complex drivers to explain this phenomenon including social inequality, the global pandemic, political instability, and climate change. Because the causes of the youth mental health crisis are complicated, an effective response must also be nuanced and thoughtful. Many NRF grantees are taking on the difficult but essential task of addressing mental health issues with their program participants.

A young person sits next to an adult and talks while the adult takes notes

Some programs focus on mental health as a central component of their work. For example, grantees might offer therapeutic equine experiences or nature-based trauma healing initiatives. Other grantees address mental health in smaller, but equally important, ways. This could look like opening up honest conversations with youth about the realities of mental health or creating safe spaces for kids to talk about their feelings and ask for help if they need it. Whether grantees are directly offering licensed counseling or fostering peer and mentor relationships that can help kids get connected to mental health resources, taking action to address the youth mental health crisis is a critical aspect of the work many youth-focused organizations do.

A young boy sits staring out of a window

An essential component of any discussion of mental health is acknowledging the ways in which systemic inequities influence who experiences the consequences of mental health disorders. Youth with marginalized identities are at a higher risk for mental health disorders. This includes youth from low-income households, youth in the child welfare or juvenile justice system, youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ youth. Young people who hold one or several of these identities are not inherently more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Instead, the daily struggle of experiencing discrimination and marginalization can contribute to a sense of isolation, hopelessness, or stress. Additionally, youth with marginalized identities may encounter more barriers when trying to access mental health resources and care because of oppressive systems embedded within the health care, government, and non-profit sectors.

A child stands with arms up in front of sunflowers

One growing area of focus within youth mental health is the impact of climate change. The reality of large-scale environmental degradation leaves young people with a very uncertain future. Feeling grief, stress, or anger is a reasonable response to climate change, and it’s important for youth to be able to face those emotions head on and discuss them with both peers and adults. Dwelling too much on negative climate emotions, however, prevents youth from experiencing a sense of joy and hope which is an essential part of childhood and adolescence. Adults have a responsibility to help young people find the balance between acknowledging the tragedy of global climate change and still finding happiness and inspiration in their lives. Two great resources for working with kids on climate-based mental health issues are the Climate Mental Health Network and One Green Thing.

Two girls smile at the beach while wearing brightly colored bathing suits

Mental health is a large, complicated issue. It intersects with so many other social, political, and environmental topics and no one person, strategy, or organization will be the sole solution to the youth mental health crisis. Instead, we can all work to chip away at the stigma and silence that prevents us from having real conversations with young people about how they’re doing and what they need. We all have a role to play, however big or small, in promoting mental wellbeing in the generations that come after us.