For Our Kids: Remedying the Youth Mental Health Crisis
May is Mental Health Awareness month. What better time to highlight the mental health issues of our youth and adolescents?
On Jan. 3, 2001, the United States Surgeon General released a report detailing that 12 percent of American children 18 and under have a mental health diagnosis. Adolescence is a time of change that brings many challenges. The body is changing, and social and academic stress make it a challenging time for many of our teens. Fortunately, most adolescents manage to push through and only have short-term feelings of depression, sadness or anxiety.
However, the number of children and adolescents dealing with a mental health diagnosis is staggering and has only increased since the 2001 Surgeon General’s report. Approximately 8 percent of all adolescents have a major depressive episode. Thirteen percent of our children ages 8-15 live with major mental illness that impacts their daily lives. Fifty percent of all lifetime mental health issues begin between the ages of 14 and 24. That’s one in six youth and adolescents who will experience a mental health condition.
Seventy-five percent of mental health issues start by age 24. It is estimated that 50 percent of youth with mental health issues do not receive formal treatment through outpatient or inpatient facilities. Twenty percent of adolescents have depression in their teen years. Twice as many girls as boys are diagnosed with depression.
The consequences of untreated mental health issues among our children and youth are overwhelming. Approximately 50 percent of youth ages 14-18 with an untreated mental illness drop out of high school. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health diagnosis. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth ages 15-19.
A 2021 poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) amid the pandemic found parents and caregivers reporting changes in their children with an increase in more negative behaviors. Those same parents and caregivers report a 20 percent increase in anxiety. Nineteen percent reporting stated their child is showing more irritation; 14 percent reported their child is showing more signs of sadness or depression. Thirteen percent say their child cannot concentrate, and 12 percent report their child is less interested in social activities.
The 2021 poll showed that many parents support mental health education in schools and “mental health days” for their children. Eighty-seven percent support mental health education in schools. Seventy percent support mental health days for students. Forty-four percent are concerned about their children’s mental health, but only 16 percent sought help for them.
The challenge of getting help for youth and adolescents with mental health and behavioral issues has been left up to the parents, caregivers and school personnel. This has mainly been due to the immediate community’s lack of mental health services. The partnership between home and school must be strengthened. A strengthened partnership between home and school would allow for early identification, interventions and treatment.
The topic of mental illness brings stigma and shame, embarrassment, misinformation, and even blaming. With all the advances in science and technology, there are still those who refuse to believe that children and youth can develop early onset of mental health issues. Those who are reluctant to believe often say that children showing signs and symptoms are choosing to act out.
Parents, caregivers and teachers are at the frontline in identifying and helping the child experiencing symptoms of mental health issues. The key is to act quickly and get these children the help they need to prevent the illness from creating complications as they get older and enter their adult lives.
How do we start the conversation? We begin by removing the blame. In today’s society, everyone wants to assess who is at fault and place blame. There are biological, physiological and environmental aspects that must be factored into what causes mental illnesses. It is essential to know that no one is to blame. We must destigmatize mental illness. Mental illness must be treated like any other health condition. We must realize that stigma hurts, shames and prevents people from getting treatment. Know the warning signs. We must educate ourselves on the warning signs and symptoms of mental illness.
Have conversations about mental health in your home, workplace, school and community. When one suffers, we all are affected. Education is the key to ending the stigma. Having access to and providing resources are vital to educating to understanding.
NAMI Arkansas provides a Warmline; unlike a hotline for those in immediate crisis, Warmlines provide early intervention with the emotional support that may prevent a crisis. The line offers free, confidential peer-support services staffed by volunteers or paid employees who have experienced mental health conditions themselves. The Warmline offers support, education, advocacy and referrals. Call 1-800-844-0381.
NAMI Arkansas offers several support groups and educational classes. One that comes highly recommended to help understand mental illness is NAMI Basics. NAMI Basics is a six-session education program for parents, caregivers and other family members who provide care for youth (ages 22 and younger) who are experiencing mental health symptoms. This program is free to participants and can be completed in person or online through NAMI Basics OnDemand. The OnDemand program is also guided by parents and family members with lived experience. It is self-paced and available 24/7. OnDemand offers the flexibility of participating in the course on your schedule. Both formats provide identical information, strategies and the opportunity to connect with other parents and caregivers.
A new program offered in partnership with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield to help end the stigma is NAMI on Campus. NAMI On Campus High School Club is a student-led club that raises mental health awareness and reduces stigma on campus through peer-led activities and education. Student leaders are empowered with toolkits, materials, templates and resources to make running the club a fun and educational process. The club is open to all students. Club leaders and members become advocates within their school and local community and work toward creating a more positive and mental health-supportive school environment.
For more information, educational materials, referrals, support or advocacy, contact NAMI Arkansas at 1-800-844-0381 or namiarkansas.org.
Buster Lackey, PhD, LPC, LADAC, is the executive director of NAMI Arkansas, a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to help people living with mental illness, their families and the community.
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