Youth Health Mental Health

youth health mental

Adolescence is an important time for mental health, as it’s when brain connections are growing. But poor mental health can interfere with teens’ decision making, school performance and relationships.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of sadness or hopelessness were rising among adolescents and teens. And those trends have continued since the pandemic.

Preventing Mental Health Problems

Teens often notice friends and peers struggling with mental health warning signs. They spend a lot of time in-person and on social media with their peers, so they may notice that someone is depressed or having suicidal thoughts long before adults do. Teach youth about mental health warning signs and encourage them to talk to their parents or teachers about what they are seeing.

Youth mental health problems tend to have more complex symptom presentations than disorders that appear in adulthood. This can make them harder to diagnose and treat. Youth-oriented psychosocial interventions can help prevent mental health problems and reduce their effects in the future.

Youth who don’t feel connected to school or family are at greater risk for mental health problems. These problems can go hand-in-hand with other risks like drug use, violence and higher-risk sexual behaviors that can lead to unintended pregnancy and HIV. Youth health mental efforts focus on creating protective relationships and promoting healthy behaviors.

Identifying Mental Health Problems

Youth mental health is all about identifying mental illness early so that young people can receive the help they need before the disorder becomes more serious. Youth health mental professionals are working to develop ways to detect mental health problems in adolescents and children, including screenings for anxiety. They also work to identify who is most likely to experience mental health issues so that they can target those groups with prevention and intervention programs.

Many youth have overlapping symptoms, so it can be hard to tell when something is wrong. But there are some warning signs to look for, such as declining grades, losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, or sleeping a lot more than usual.

A comprehensive approach to youth mental health must incorporate these insights into diagnostic models, service delivery systems, and prevention strategies. A recent report from the Ernst Strungmann Forum on Youth Mental Health provides a framework for these efforts: Uhlhaas PJ, Wood SJ, Youth Mental Health: A Paradigm for Prevention and Detection. MIT Press: 2020.

Treating Mental Health Problems

The goal of treating mental health problems is to help people overcome them so they can live productive lives. Treatments can include psychotherapy, medication and community support. Prevention and early intervention are key. It’s also important to address barriers to care, such as stigma and lack of access.

Mental health problems often emerge during adolescence. If left untreated, they can lead to chronic illnesses and lower overall functioning in adulthood. For example, depression and anxiety are leading causes of illness and disability in adolescents. They can also contribute to suicide, which is the fourth leading cause of death in this age group.

Rates of youth mental health concerns have been steadily increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend, creating more instability and fear for many young people and contributing to a surge in suicide-related emergency department visits.

Managing Mental Health Problems

Educate the public to reduce misperceptions about mental illness and encourage open discussion. This can be done through community groups, faith leaders, health care professionals, educators, juvenile justice officials, online influencers, and the media. Targeting populations with outsized influence over youth—such as families, teachers and peers—is particularly important.

Make it a priority to promote healthy lifestyles that include regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep and limited screen time. These habits can help prevent mental health problems in youth.

Address barriers to accessing mental health services, especially among racial and ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ and other at-risk youth. Recruit program staff directly from the communities served and train them to recognize personal biases and other barriers that may impede their ability to deliver effective services.

Adopt and promote evidence-based practices in systems that serve youth, including schools, primary care offices, clinics, treatment facilities, juvenile justice settings and family services. This can be achieved by prioritizing research on interventions that have the potential to change developmental trajectories and by developing effective dissemination strategies.