The past two years have not been good for the mental health of many children, but new data offers a devastating glimpse of the toll.
On Monday, Mental Health America released an analysis of 5.4 million online mental health screenings conducted on the organization’s website in 2021. According to the report, 45% of people who got screened were 11 years old. to 17, which represents a 16% increase since 2019.
Rates of suicidal ideation were also highest among youth, particularly LGBTQ+ youth. Overall, 51% of depression screeners aged 11 to 17 reported frequent suicidal ideation for more than half or almost every day of the previous two weeks. That number rose to 52% for youth of color and 63% for youth who identified as LGBTQ+.
What do these numbers mean?
“We want to draw attention to these numbers because they are reaching a tipping point,” Maddy Reinert, senior director of population health at Mental Health America, told HuffPost. “The number of people under the age of 18 with mental health issues who are seeking resources and supports online is higher than ever.”
She also noted that 9 out of 10 young people aged 11 to 17 who self-screened for depression on the website experienced symptoms of moderate to severe depression – a higher rate than any other age group.
Mental Health America’s data was collected from its online screening program, which began in 2014 and consists of 10 free, anonymous, confidential and clinically validated tools on the organization’s website. It is important to note that the population taking these screening tests are people seeking mental health help and resources, so they are more likely to test positive for these symptoms than the average individual.
Still, Reinert thinks the data — particularly the rise in the number of young users seeking these resources — underscores the scale of the mental health crisis affecting America’s youth today.
“Of course, we know that COVID-19 has really affected mental health, not only making us worry about our health and that of our loved ones, but also drastically altering our social environments,” she said. . “About 70% of our 11 to 17 year olds said loneliness or social isolation contributed to their mental health issues. And we’ve seen many more young people worry about financial insecurity, showing the impact of COVID-19 and job loss. »
In addition to social isolation, health issues and financial insecurity, Reinert noted that young people also reported experiencing grief after losing a loved one or losing major life opportunities, such as going to school. school or some big event. More than 200,000 children under the age of 18 in the United States have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, with nonwhite children losing adult caregivers at higher rates.
For some LGBTQ+ youth, there are issues around being stuck at home in a household that doesn’t necessarily accept their identity. Feeling alienated from schools, communities, or other places where they felt more accepted or perhaps had access to trusted adults could also be a factor. And for people of color, there are growing reports of racism, as well as fear amid increasingly visible stories of racial violence in the United States.
“The situation is urgent,” Reinert said. “Maybe people are assuming, ‘Well, it’s because of COVID, and once that starts to go away, things will be better and rates will go down. But we are seeing a massive impact on mental health that will continue if we don’t act now. This problem is not going away. We were approaching the state of crisis before the pandemic, and the pandemic put a giant magnifying glass on a problem that already existed.
What can be done to improve children’s mental health?
“We should screen all young people for mental health issues the same way we screen their hearing and sight,” said Schroeder Stribling, president and CEO of Mental Health America. “We should also promote positive social engagement and encourage healthy coping strategies to stress and negative emotions, especially as they emerge from a long period of social isolation and disruptions in their daily lives.”
She emphasized the importance of prevention, early detection and intervention in mental health care. For young people, this means having access to equitable, affordable, compassionate and non-judgmental support and resources in their communities and schools, whether through counsellors, psychologists or even just trusted adults. .
“Parents have a simple but vital role and that is to listen and support,” Stribling added. “If your child feels they may be struggling with a mental health issue, believe them, validate how they feel, and offer help for support. We hear disappointing stories of young people who are hurting but don’t feel believed or supported by a parent or caregiver ― and conversely, we know that a supportive caregiver can make all the difference in helping young people through crisis and recovery and wellness. ”
It is also crucial to ensure that all mental health crisis and preventive services for young people are meaningfully covered by public and private health insurance, as this is not currently the case.
“Social media is also a piece of the puzzle,” Stribling added. “We need to look carefully at social media platforms and find ways to minimize content that harms the mental health of young people.”
While social media can be beneficial in providing online community to those who feel isolated where they live, its negative impact on young people has also been well documented. Creating a mentally healthier experience for young users is crucial.
Young people need to be aware of the impact social media can have on their mental health. If they feel they are showing symptoms of a mental health issue, they can start by getting screened online.
“The next step is to share the results of this screening with a parent, teacher, doctor, school counselor or other trusted adult to start a conversation about getting support,” Stribling said.
If a young person doesn’t feel ready to have this conversation, they can search for resources on the Mental Health America website and other trusted sites like The Trevor Project, The Jed Foundation, and Minding Your Mind to learn more and find support in other ways. .
“Young people can also become advocates in their schools and communities,” Stribling said. “We are working with a number of young people who are leading the charge to get more accessible mental health supports and services in their area. There are no more powerful voices than young people themselves, and we encourage young people to get involved in mental health advocacy.