Increasing mental health resources and access to behavioral health services is a necessary step to mend our youth mental health crisis. If we are truly committed to ending this crisis, we must also consider what factors lead to the situation getting this bad. What is different about our youth today? What has gotten us to this crisis point?
Our youth are facing an unprecedented number of stressors that can explain rising rates of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents. Gen Z youth are experiencing stress from sources ranging from school demands to family issues, and even “eco anxiety.” Though these statistics tell us that most youth are struggling with similar hardships, those that work closest to them assure us that this is not how they see it. Recent conversations with Virginia youth directors have made it clear that a key element in this crisis is that youth are feeling alone and disconnected from those around them.
Most of us have been there, feeling as if we are the only ones stressing about school, social image, or family issues, when in reality the majority of us go through similar issues. As a society, we are becoming more open about mental health issues, yet, there is more to be done. If youth do not feel comfortable talking about their struggles, they will continue to feel alone. Think of a student falling behind in a class. On top of feeling the academic stress, they may also feel shame, which could lead to feelings of isolation and then more serious mental health issues. Even in the Netherlands – whose COVID-19 response included short lockdowns, equitable funding, and high rates of broadband access – student test results revealed a learning loss. How can a student blame themselves for something that is happening globally, even in “best case” scenarios? Why is it that they feel shame rather than solidarity?
Loneliness is being described as an epidemic, with over 60% of young adults feeling it. They are unable to connect with those around them and have to tackle their challenges alone. This all makes the perfect recipe for deteriorating physical and mental health issues that must be addressed.
High rates of youth loneliness can easily be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic: the nationwide lockdowns, social distancing, and virtual schooling all caused disconnection. Efforts to boost human connection were admirable, but the damage is done. No amount of virtual connection can make up for the formative middle school years, high school celebrations, and other important in-person experiences youth missed. While it is easy to point fingers at the pandemic, we cannot forget that these rates were rising prior to it. Social media and changing family structures also play a role in limiting the connections youth build with one another.
As we move forward, we have to be more intentional about forming and maintaining connections. Those that work with youth should prioritize creating spaces for youth to meet and truly connect with one another. Youth thrive when they feel they belong, they need to know that people hear and care about them.
Most parents and caregivers know the importance of forming secure attachment in early childhood and actively work toward developing it. Attachment building paves the way for healthy and independent children, however, as they grow up there is less of an emphasis on developing and maintaining these sorts of connections. It is important for kids to learn independence, but no one can survive on their own, not physically or mentally. It is no surprise that youth connectedness is a protective factor for negative mental health outcomes and that the CDC supports the implementation of connectedness strategies, policies, and activities. As we move forward, we must value building youth connections just as much as we do infant attachment building.
Peer support is an evidence-based practice used to help individuals cope with mental health challenges and improve quality of life. In addition to being cost-saving, it has been shown to be more effective than usual care for treating depression, and is especially engaging for “difficult to reach” individuals. Virginia already has qualified peer support providers that use their lived experience with mental health and substance use disorders to help others with their recovery. These providers are important for recovery once mental health challenges arise; however, their experience can also be beneficial for preventative measures before the issues arise. Programs like Hoos Connected, at the University of Virginia, use a form of peer support by having upperclassmen facilitators bring students together to develop meaningful connections with one another. Students that participate in these programs report feeling significantly less depressed and as a former facilitator, I can attest to the difference the 9-week program makes. Despite its limitations – mainly the challenge of enrolling youth into a “feelings” class – there is a lot of promise to programs like these.
Combating the loneliness epidemic will take time as it requires youth buy-in and societal shifting. Working alongside young people as we continue to research and develop solutions will be essential as we move forward in an effort to improve the overall mental health of our youth.Read More Blog Posts