Mental health issues are on the rise in young people. In the last 10 years, high school students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness increased from 28% to 42% according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These rates are even higher for girls and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Earlier this year, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released an advisory on the urgency of protecting youth mental health.
Together, Cambia Health Foundation and American Heart Association hosted a free, virtual community conversation where experts discussed youth mental health, the link between mental and physical health and what we can do to help.
The panel included:
- Alex Zamora, PhD, principal at Wilder Elementary School and Idaho Future Ready Academy
- Megan L. Smith, PhD, associate professor at School of Public & Population Health at Boise State University
- Jason Shanks, EdS, LPC, supervisor of counseling services at Boise School District
- Noreen Womack, MD, pediatrician at St. Luke’s Children’s Mobile Care
Highlights from the conversation
Identifying the cause early
As a society, we need to identify what is causing the increase in depression and suicidal ideation so we can work to solve the problem. It is crucial to determine how a young person arrives at the point of urgent need. For example, youth have reported high levels of isolation, loneliness and stress – and we need to come together to identify ways that we can solve these problems before they develop into more severe mental health conditions.
Connection between physical and mental health
Physical and mental health are two sides of the same coin. Adverse childhood experiences are shown to have a direct cause on long-term physical health, including heart disease, the most prominent cause of death in the United States. For kids experiencing mental health issues, they may have physical manifestations such as stomach aches and headaches.
Reducing stigma and barriers to care
Stigma prevents people from pursuing mental health care, but this is especially prevalent among minority groups. In Idaho, only 20% of people who identify as part of a minority group will seek mental health care when they need it, compared to 52% of people who do not identify as part of a minority group. Stigma is a significant factor but, there are many other reasons people don’t seek care including cost, the availability of culturally appropriate care, transportation limitations and access to internet fast enough for telehealth. For some, simply the lack of a private space in their home prevents them from seeking care via telehealth.
When you begin digging into the issues a child is struggling with, it’s important to start with the parent or caregiver who is modeling behaviors for them. Parents are a child’s best teachers, and they need to demonstrate healthy behaviors such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, limiting caffeine consumption and limiting time spent on screens and social media. There are crucial bonding activities that are influential like eating dinner at the table as a family or reading a bedtime story together. Parents and caregivers also have a prominent role in reducing stigma. When they talk about their own feelings consistently, share how they’re coping with them and seek care when needed, they’re teaching their child to do the same.
Seek to understand
Sometimes the crisis a young person is going through seems small or silly to an adult, but remember it does not feel small to them. As an adult, it’s important to acknowledge their experience without minimizing it, which helps promote additional conversation. It’s equally important to dig into the reasons behind their concerns or behaviors. For example, if a child has admitted to self-harm or substance misuse, keep lines of communication open with them and try to understand the reasoning behind it. It’s easier to help them, if you’ve identified the root of the problem.
Importance of community
You might think that with the prevalence of social media, people wouldn’t feel isolated. But think of social media as junk food – it might immediately curb your hunger, but in the long run, it’s not providing the nutrition that your body needs to thrive. Similarly, social media has its place, but on its own, it is not the path to social fulfillment. If a child is having a hard time building quality friendships in their daily lives, it’s crucial to help them seek out a community in new ways. It could be as simple as contacting the child’s school to learn more about events and activities. Having community helps the whole family; we all need human connection and support.
Cambia Health Foundation’s focus on resilient children & families
At Cambia Health Foundation, we purposefully invest in behavioral health access for young children and their caregivers across Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Children’s earliest experiences set the patterns for their lifelong behavioral and physical health. Early intervention for young children and their caregivers has shown to be highly effective in building resilience and improving health outcomes. Our partnership with American Heart Association supports this area of focus.