If you are a parent or legal guardian to a child or teenager, then you might be aware that youth have been facing increasing mental health challenges in recent years.
Several statistics from the office of the U.S. Surgeon General showcase the severity of the situation. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes among American youth, with as many as 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 suffering from a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. In addition, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019—a 40% increase over the previous decade. And most sadly, suicide rates among youth ages 10–24 increased by 57% from 2007 to 2018.
Fortunately, there is much work being done to address this growing crisis. Among other initiatives, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) announced earlier this month that it’s entering an $8 million partnership with Riley Children’s Health to provide mental health services at pediatric primary care offices across the state. This partnership will integrate mental health services into Riley Children’s Health’s primary pediatric care settings throughout Indiana, which will make it faster and easier for Hoosier parents and physicians to help youth with their mental health needs.
In light of these recent developments, we wanted to do our part to inform our community about the state of the current youth mental health crisis. We know that frightening situations like these can be improved if we understand why they are happening and what we can do about them.
In this week’s blog post, we’ll provide a brief overview of youth mental illness in our country, including why it’s on the rise and what you can do to help a child or teen who is struggling with mental health challenges.
What Is Causing the Youth Mental Health Crisis?
When discussing the mental health of young people, it’s important to explain that many mental illnesses first manifest during childhood or adolescence. The age at which a person first displays symptoms of a mental illness is referred to as the disorder’s “age of onset“.
Across the world, about 1 in 4 people will experience a mental illness sometime in their life. This means that as many as 25% of youth may experience the onset of a mental illness that negatively impacts their overall mental health. According to surveys by the World Health Organization, the average age of onset for various types of mental illness are as follows:
- ADHD: ages 7–9
- Phobia-related anxiety disorders: ages 7–14
- Schizophrenia: ages 15–35
- Substance use disorders: ages 18–29
- Generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD: ages 25–53
- Mood disorders: ages 25–45
As you can see, the development of a mental illness is one factor that may affect a child’s well-being. However, a number of environmental factors are also contributing to the youth mental health crisis our country is currently experiencing.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Youth Mental Health, research suggests that factors like the growing use of digital media, increasing academic pressure, limited access to mental health care, financial insecurity, highly-publicized societal violence, and anxieties about climate change may be worsening young people’s mental health and wellness. More research is required to determine precisely these subjects are affecting youth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further added to the mental health challenges of many individuals; children and teens whose daily routines have been disrupted by the pandemic, who have experienced greater financial instability as a result of the pandemic, or who have lost a family member to COVID-19 are most likely to have suffered mental health challenges as a direct result of the pandemic.
What Can You Do About the Crisis?
Clearly, the challenges facing youth today are not ones that are easily solved. But there is plenty that we can do to help.
We have already seen signs that our government and health care professionals are attempting to respond to the crisis. In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, urging the country to take steps to address the problem. The following December, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office issued its advisory, signifying the federal government’s commitment to addressing the crisis. And in Indiana, the state government is allocating tens of millions of dollars to make mental health care more accessible and more effective for all Hoosiers. These are all encouraging signs.
There are also several things you can personally do to look after your child’s mental health. First and foremost is to have your child screened for mental illness and mental health challenges. Screenings are an important part of prevention and early intervention for mental illness, and they can often be obtained through your child’s pediatric primary care physician. In addition, Mental Health America offers free online screening assessments for a variety of mental illnesses, including an assessment that parents and guardians can take for their children.
In addition to screenings, the importance of talking to your child about their fears, worries and challenges cannot be overstated. Young people need trusted adults whom they can confide in without fear of judgment or punishment. As a parent or legal guardian, one of the best things you can do is normalize mental health challenges and encourage your child to share their struggles with you. The more they believe that you understand and support them, the better off they will be.
Dr. Ashleigh Woods, Cummins’ Senior Psychologist, adds,
“One of the biggest challenges I see facing children, teens, and families is lack of connection. Human beings are social creatures, and connection to others is what helps us regulate our thoughts, feelings, and bodies. When a parent or caregiver engages face-to-face with their child, that child’s mirror neurons and vagus nerve react to the caregiver’s facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Not only is the child taking in what their parent is saying, but those nonverbal cues are also having a neurological impact on the child’s developing brain.
If we can help families improve both the quantity and quality of their face-to-face interactions, we can improve their connections and create more emotional safety and stability, which goes a long way toward building resiliency.”