Davis is associate vice president for peer and youth advocacy at Mental Health America and lives in Philadelphia. I am doing and Chill out are youth advocates and board members of the California Children’s Trust and the California Coalition for Youth. Do lives in Anaheim and Chilla lives in San Diego.
We have a youth mental health crisis on our hands and young people and their families are increasingly asking for help. However, for many, there is limited help available.
The Biden administration and the US surgeon general have called for broad, strategic action to meet the growing needs of teenagers and young adults. Their recommendations include things like integrating mental health services into primary care, equipping schools with mental health education, and supporting digital and telehealth to expand access to services. While these are essential, one key group is often left out of conversations about tackling youth mental health – young people themselves.
When youth come forward and are supported, real and meaningful change happens.
Mira Mesa High School student Catherine Delgado noticed that her friends were struggling with their mental health but had limited resources and support. To address this, she partnered with other students to create the SWEAR (Student Wellness, Education and Resources) Committee, a student-led initiative that advocates for the mental health and wellness of all students. Through SWEAR leadership, students work with leaders in the school district to create mental health and wellness education, ally and leadership training, and district-wide initiatives such as forums and community walks that empower students to help the each other and create communities open to mental health.
Once given the right support and resources, young people like Catherine can act as critical leaders and advocates for other young people in their communities, whether talking to a neighbor or teammate, or as part of systems that impact youth such as education and mental health.
To empower young people with the skills and information to create more open and mental health-friendly relationships and communities, we recommend that policymakers, philanthropists and other leaders focused on addressing this crisis consider the role of adolescents and of young adults at three levels.
First, communities need to train all young people with the skills and language to talk about mental health and support their friends. Teens and young adults are often the first to notice that something might be wrong with someone in their network, either in person or online. They need to have the language and knowledge to respond to their friends and navigate tough conversations about seeking help or just needing to share what they’re going through with someone.
Second, young people should be empowered to promote mental health wherever they spend their time. In a 2020 survey by Mental Health America, learning mental health skills as part of their daily lives was one of the top three ways young people said they wanted support, behind access to mental health professionals and respite or mental health absences during school. Young people can learn how to promote mental health and support their peers everywhere they spend their time, whether through online gaming communities, at the YMCA or at school. In fact, thanks to student leadership, the state of California recently committed $10 million to implement and study this type of peer-to-peer model to address mental health in high schools across the state.
Finally, we need to invest in youth peer specialists across all youth service systems. Youth Peer Support Specialists are young adults who have experienced mental health, trauma, or substance use challenges and are trained and often certified by their state to support other youth struggling with their mental health. Youth peer specialists can provide support to young people in navigating all that is involved in being a young person trying to cope with mental health conditions. Youth peer specialists also serve as a source and role model of hope for teens and young adults who may feel hopeless about their ability to grow and thrive.
Since 2017, Mental Health America has been working with youth across the US who have created programs and initiatives that fill gaps in current mental health resources. Teens and young adults are using their platforms to start conversations about mental health and drive change. They experience first-hand the limitations of our current approach and investment in mental health. And, increasingly, they are leading calls for change and inclusion in solutions to address creating a better present and future for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
If we are to improve our ability to address the youth mental health crisis (and create opportunities for increased career interest in our very limited health workforce), we must consider young people as key partners in addressing and improving mental health of their peers. We need urgent action and much more investment in young people’s mental health, but we will be failing young people if we don’t listen to them and help them build what they want.