BY ALISON MALMON, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ACTIVE MINDS, 10/12/2022
When I lost my brother Brian to suicide, like too many others in this country, I realized that “doing well” in school does not necessarily translate into fulfillment and well-being. As the past two-plus years of the pandemic have highlighted, there is much more than just academics and extracurricular activities that determine whether the youth in our lives are truly succeeding and flourishing; social connection and support play a crucial role in helping adolescents thrive.
Fortunately, today’s adolescents increasingly understand the importance of mental health and its connection to overall well-being, a generational shift that is leading to more open and destigmatized conversations. The clinical landscape is changing, too, as providers increasingly incorporate mental health into primary care, telehealth improves access to counseling and a recent explosion of scientific research and data gives us new tools and insights to guide evidence-based efforts to improve mental health.
However, not everyone has physical or emotional access to the help they need to survive and thrive. While mental health challenges do not discriminate, this lack of access does —disproportionately impacting Black, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic youth. Additionally, historical trauma, stigma and a cultural narrative around fault and blame persists, coinciding with a lack of adequate representation in the clinical workforce for people of color and the LGBTQ community.
The striking findings in the 2022 Health of Women and Children Report reinforce years of reporting that depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are all concerningly prevalent among our nation’s youth and likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must acknowledge the extraordinary, traumatic levels of loss by many young people as their lives were upended over the past two years — especially in underserved communities. However, we also must recognize that these longer-term challenges will not recede as the nation navigates today’s new pandemic realities.
At Active Minds, we aim to uplift the youth voices who are driving more open conversations in our society by embedding mental health into everyday peer-to-peer interactions. We provide resources, training and programs to teachers, students and families in over 1,000 high schools and colleges, with the goal of making young people more comfortable reaching out for help and ensuring they know where to find support. Having these conversations as early and often as possible is key to preventing adolescents’ mental health from worsening as they age, which is why our new partnership with the United Health Foundation builds on our evidence-based approach to reach middle schoolers for the first time across 50 urban, rural, suburban and underserved school districts.
As we seek to address resource gaps and cultural barriers to better mental health, public health data — especially when disaggregated by demographic factors — can target our efforts to the right issues, in the right populations, with the right interventions and messages. Together, we can reinforce the progress that America’s adolescents are making in changing the conversation and improve mental health and overall well-being across the nation.