Mental health problems aren’t unique to adults. Children and adolescents also face struggles with their mental health. In fact, youth mental health seems to be worsening nationwide. And although the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these trends, the youth mental health crisis was already a growing problem throughout the past decade.
Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are all trending in the wrong direction according to a range of research and data sources. Emergency room visits for mental health crises among children are on the rise as well. Hospitals saw a 24% increase for children ages 5 to 11 and a 31% increase for adolescents ages 12 to 17 between March and October of 2020.1 Additionally, in 2021, 42% of students reported feeling persistently sad and hopeless. 29% experienced poor mental health. 22% seriously considered suicide and 10% attempted suicide.
These statistics are enough to shake anyone to their core. What is it that causes such a sobering reality? Why do mental health rates among children and adolescents continue plummeting year after year? And what can healthcare workers, clinicians, professionals, and parents alike do to address and interrupt this intensifying problem?
What Causes Kids to Struggle?
It isn’t difficult to see why kids are dealing with a sharp rise in mental health problems. Sure, every generation has its list of reasons why life was difficult. But today’s youth has a very unique set of problems to deal with that seems to evolve and expand with each passing day.
Social media places them on display for judgment from peers not only in their school or hometown but around the world. School shootings, natural disasters, political polarization, and climate change are all prominent and pressing problems. Mass media attention makes it impossible for young people to ignore the ever-expanding set of difficulties that seems to be waiting for them when they grow up.
Add the pressure from the global pandemic to their plates, including isolation from their friends, the possible loss of loved ones, or stresses they observed and absorbed from their parents, and it leaves little room to wonder what could leave them feeling depressed, anxious, helpless, or even hopeless.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.2 They developed a list of areas for focus, advocacy, and improvement to help develop and provide the help that children and adolescents need.
Is It Just a Stage?
Many parents wonder whether their child’s struggles are just a stage that they will outgrow as they get older. Some may even feel tempted to dismiss their behavior as part of being a kid. Every child feels nervous, anxious, sad, or irritable at times, and often cycles rapidly through these emotions.3 In some instances their behavior may be “just a stage”, but brushing off their troubles is not the right approach.
Mental illness is problematic at any age but it’s even more difficult for children and adolescents. Young people have far fewer tools to manage their symptoms than adults do. They also have limited life experience to understand that mental illness, while challenging, is something they can learn to live with and still experience a happy, fulfilling life. Parents should always take their child’s symptoms seriously whether they are part of a “stage” or not.
However, lifelong, pervasive mental illness can also begin in childhood. Studies show that mental health problems that emerge during childhood or adolescence can persist into adulthood. Kids with mental health struggles typically experience impaired mental health, lower life satisfaction, and a poorer quality of life as they grow up.4
Finding Solutions for the Youth Mental Health Crisis
Looking at statistics alone may make the future of mental health seem grim, but recognition and awareness are the first steps to finding a solution. There is hope for healing for children experiencing mental health difficulties. Clinicians and mental health professionals are dedicated to providing children and adolescents with the help they need to manage their symptoms and set them up for a successful future.
Improving early intervention in youth mental health is the next step to addressing the youth mental health crisis. Children and adolescents who express concerns about their mental health should always be taken seriously. Connecting them with mental health care is crucial; a clinician can determine the seriousness and severity of their symptoms after the child has the help they need.
Kids with mental health difficulties may be more likely to turn to self-medication with drugs or alcohol or participate in risky behaviors. Left untreated, these issues only exacerbate their underlying symptoms. Instead, increasing children and adolescents’ access to mental health services improves their chances of a successful transition into adulthood.
It’s also important that their families receive support and care during these difficult and pivotal moments. Healing doesn’t happen in a silo; involving the entire family is an important part of the process. Positive mental health begins with a strong foundation, and ensuring children have the resources they need to succeed. Emerge Recovery is dedicated to providing help, hope, and healing for every individual at every age, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.
1. EducationWeek. (2021). Children, Teens Are in a ‘Mental Health State of Emergency,’ Child Health-Care Groups Warn.
2. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021). AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Children and Mental Health: Is This Just a Stage?.
4. Journal of Health Monitoring. (2021). The effects of mental health problems in childhood and adolescence in young adults.
5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022). Most reported substance use among adolescents held steady in 2022.