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Youth and Mental Health by Rachel Gerstenfeld, RHEC I Emerging Professional

posted Aug 28, 2018, 9:13 AM by daniel yoo   [ updated Aug 28, 2018, 9:32 AM ]
Behavioral and mental health concerns among youth in the United States is a topic garnering more and more attention from health professionals. A variety of factors, ranging from genetics to environmental triggers, can have an impact on the developing brains of teens and young adults. From school shootings to racism to online bullying to laws stigmatizing LGBTQ individuals, many of today’s young adults face a difficult reality. With various socioeconomic and environmental factors impacting their mental health, it is more important than ever to recognize and understand the needs of our country’s youth.

Various federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have created instruments to monitor and quantify health-related behaviors among young adults. For example, this year, the CDC released data from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). YRBSS draws participation from public schools in states all over the country and measures health behaviors among American youth such as those relating to violence, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, and sexual behavior. All states within by RHEC I—Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—participated in the 2017 survey.

Information revealed in that survey is startling: Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and students with disabilities reported feeling sad or hopeless at twice the rate of their peers. In Rhode Island, 14 percent of high school students made a suicide plan. Rhode Island also saw a number of health disparities in the reported data: Mental health issues were reported to be more common among female and Hispanic high school and middle school students. Males were more likely to try marijuana earlier, and Hispanic middle school students had a higher percentage of use compared to white students. In Vermont, students of color in high school were more likely to make a suicide plan. Moreover, the percentage of middle and high school students who used electronic vapor products (i.e. e-cigs) increased from the last survey in 2015.

All of these statistics and facts highlight the need for increased care, support, and specific mental health services catered to youth throughout the country. Some measures are already in place to help bridge this gap in care. For example, Vermont’s Mental Health Department is working to address the need for more services in the state by promoting a new texting hotline service to reach youth in need of help. As reiterated by Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Melissa Bailey, "We have a youth population that is struggling with some pretty stressful times.” A texting number will serve as a solid springboard for people facing challenges to seek help. The goal of the texting hotline is to encourage participants to be healthy and make decisions that will lead them toward getting the care they need to get better and live a happier, healthier life.

School-based mental health centers have been implemented and proven to be extremely beneficial, particularly for black and Hispanic students. Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers Executive Director Jesse White-Fresé stated for the Hartford Courant that school services are “the primary place where they get their care”. While all teens may experience mental health concerns like depression, research shows that black and Hispanic students in particular are more likely than white students to struggle with the disease. The 2015 YRBSS results from Connecticut showed that 27.3 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for more than two weeks, so much so that they stopped participating in their usual activities. Evidently, the 120-plus school-based health centers in Connecticut are important and much-needed services.

All in all, more needs to be done to address the needs of youth struggling with mental health issues. States across the country continue to expand and refine their psychiatric treatment facilities, such as with the proposed creation of a new psychiatric facility in Maine that would provide youth with intensive mental health care.

Teaching parents, educators, and other community members to recognize signs of depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and more are some things that can be done to get to the root of problem. Moreover, giving these people the tools to properly handle and help a young adult in crisis is imperative. A variety of mental health training courses are popping up across the country at schools and community centers, such as those held this summer at Wheeler’s Connecticut Center for Prevention, Wellness and Recovery.