Taking on the youth mental health crisis

Listening to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy address students from all across Yale University’s campus this past fall, I remember a string of four words repeating itself:
youth mental health crisis
. Months later, I still reflect on these words and their significance. How has this crisis come about? Why is it not talked about enough? And what does this mean for our youth and their future?

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, a shocking 49.5 percent of adolescents aged 13-18 have experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life. A statistic this high cannot be ignored — a crisis is indeed occurring. To conceptualize this, my younger brother and his friends come to mind as they have just started their first year of high school last August. I start to grow uneasy thinking about their current vulnerability to mental health concerns.

If half of our youth are experiencing mental health disorders, we firstly need to understand what they are. By definition, mental health disorders are a set of enduring symptoms that affect the way in which an individual thinks, acts and feels. This can lead to negative effects on daily functioning, school performance, and family and social relationships. Examples include anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, panic disorder and specific phobias) and depression.

Adolescents are particularly susceptible to mental health disorders because of the stage of development that they are in. During this period in their lives, they undergo a multitude of neurobiological, emotional and social changes that contribute to the development of conditions like anxiety and depression. On top of individual changes, external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic have, according to the CDC’s Dr. Debra Houry, “erode[d] students’ mental well-being.”

This problem, however, will not improve if we don’t identify new ways to provide the mental health support that our youth so desperately needs. Currently, the supply of mental health care does not meet its demand (which is applicable to not only adolescents but to all age groups).

The shortage of mental health professionals and thus the limited provision and access of services calls for innovation in mental health care delivery.

Let’s first take a look at where adolescents spend most of their time — schools. Schools are a prime setting and a main access point for students to receive mental health care. However, students during adolescence may not have the self-awareness that they are experiencing poor mental health or may face stigma from peers if they decide to seek help. Staff can play a central role where they are trained to look for the common signs and symptoms of mental health disorders and pick up on changes in behavior and emotional patterns in their students.

Additionally, screenings should be conducted at the start of every school year and at regular checkpoints to monitor students’ mental well-being on a long-term basis. Students who experience changes in their mental health based on these screenings can be referred to the appropriate services, whether that be to a school nurse, psychologist or social worker for additional support. Thus, this first strategy emphasizes the importance of making the mental health of students a priority in schools.

Next, the nascent field of digital health can be leveraged to curb the tide on the mental health crisis facing our youth. Technology is an excellent modality to provide mental health care because the management and treatment of mental health conditions do not require a physical exam. People simply need someone to talk to, which can be done in a virtual format. Studies have found that mental health care delivered virtually versus in person does not differ in its effectiveness, and “telemental health care” has only increased in use since the onset of COVID-19 and will continue to do so. Thus, technology is a powerful tool to scale mental health care and meet the high demand of mental health disorders among our youth.

Lastly, a combinatory approach can also be utilized. One such example is the startup Cartwheel based in Boston that “partners directly with schools to provide mental health for children via telehealth. More information about the startup can be found here.

To be sure, some may argue that it should not be the responsibility of schools to monitor students’ mental health, but as a society, we have to start somewhere and pool resources. Cartwheel’s approach is particularly advantageous because it doesn’t bear all the weight on schools as students are referred out to providers on their platform.

Those same four words that so deeply affected me can be disentangled if we rethink how we care for the mental health of today’s youth … and tomorrow’s leaders.

Maya Tawil is a student at Yale University.