Psychologist are at the forefront of advancing youth mental health. They are studying risk factors for mental illness and developing solutions to help families, schools, and communities.
Several pediatricians also have important roles to play in helping to destigmatize mental health care and promoting prevention. For example, they are positioned to build relationships over many years with adolescents, including through regular well-child checkups.
Preventing Mental Illness
A growing number of young people are struggling with mental health issues. These disorders are not only devastating to children and teens and their families but also costly to society through school and work-related problems, homelessness, and incarceration.
Indicated prevention interventions aim to alter the course of a disorder, typically in its first episode. They include early access to treatment, rapid response services, and a collaborative approach with other preventive strategies.
Young people and their families can take action to protect their mental health. This includes building strong relationships, practicing techniques to regulate emotions, being mindful of how they use social media and technology, and seeking help when they are experiencing challenges. This is especially important for youth who face multiple risk factors, like structural racism or pandemic isolation. They may not be able to express their challenges or ask for help as readily as others.
A burgeoning body of epidemiology, basic, and clinical research indicates that most mental disorders have their earliest symptomatic manifestations in youth. This developmental cascade model, combined with the knowledge that onset in adulthood often leads to poorer outcome, suggests an urgent need for promotion and prevention efforts aimed at this age group.
Prevention strategies must include education to promote healthy adolescent lifestyles, promoting positive relationships and coping with difficult emotions. Families should also learn to recognize adolescent mental health concerns and seek help early.
Services such as The Mix and YoungMinds provide emotional support for people under 25 by phone or online chat. The evidence supporting their effectiveness is encouraging and there are now hybrid-intervention models such as mindLAMP that offer a combination of telehealth visits, digital phenotyping and short-term behavioural interventions. Such models could increase capacity to intervene at the earliest stages of emerging psychopathology and thus improve long-term outcomes. However, it is important to note that many young people have adverse experiences with psychiatric medication and early adolescent mental health interventions should be designed with this in mind.
Adolescent Mental Health
Having good mental health is essential for adolescents to develop strong relationships, learn to deal with change, and feel like they belong in their communities. This is especially important as teenagers go through many developmental and hormonal changes, which can make them more prone to depression and risky or thrill-seeking behaviors.
If you are worried about your child’s mental health, a school nurse or counsellor may be able to help. You can also contact The Mix or YoungMinds for free and confidential emotional support.
Improved research and data integration are needed to understand youth mental health trends and provide effective services. This includes developing innovative methods for collecting real-time data, partnering with technology companies to gather data on adolescent mental health use, and engaging young people in collaborative research. In addition, improving confidentiality protection and education for teens and parents is needed to improve access to services. This can be achieved by fostering public-private partnerships and encouraging community involvement.
Mental Health Disparities
Many factors can contribute to disparities in mental health treatment, including inaccessibility to high quality services, cultural stigma, lack of awareness and financial concerns. These factors disproportionately affect children and youth from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who might benefit the most from early intervention.
For example, a recent study found that African-American and Hispanic children visit psychiatrists and other mental health professionals at much lower rates than white children. Additionally, they receive less effective and more costly treatments.
The solution lies in improving mental health outcomes among vulnerable populations, promoting access to quality care, addressing discrimination and increasing knowledge of how to prevent and treat depression, anxiety, psychosis, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Programs that aim to address these issues might consider recruiting program staff from the communities they serve and fostering cultural competence and sensitivity. They might also develop decision tools that help parents determine whether their child has a problem that warrants professional treatment.