Youth mental health trends are alarming

Situation even worse for those who have experienced trauma, neglect, and violence

AS WE FACE the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little doubt that the effect on our mental health has been profound. For young people – teens and young adults just learning how to navigate the present and plan for the future – the stakes are particularly high.  So high, in fact, that the US Surgeon General just released an advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” examining the toll of COVID and other societal forces on our youth.

According to the Surgeon General, trends relating to the mental health of our youth are alarming. Even before the pandemic, an analysis of youth mental health between 2008 and 2019 showed “the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36 percent; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44 percent.”

During the pandemic, the advisory notes, depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled while other mental health concerns such as suicidal ideation have significantly increased. Unfortunately, the data also show the impact of mental health challenges is not distributed evenly across the population: gender, race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status all impact a young adult’s sense of well-being.

For young people experiencing or at-risk for homelessness, who often have experienced trauma, neglect, and violence throughout their lives, the effects of these experiences on their mental health are even more alarming. We witness this every day at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, an organization providing services to homeless and at-risk youth, helping to transform their lives and build fulfilling, meaningful futures. According to a survey of youth visiting Bridge’s drop-in center in 2021, 76 percent experienced abuse during childhood, 65 percent had been violently robbed or assaulted on the streets, 57 percent witnessed domestic violence at home, and 47 percent of our youth experienced depressive episodes. These rates constitute a public health emergency. How can we expect these youth to successfully transition to adulthood if we do not have the necessary resources to deal with this emergency right now.

For decades, Bridge has prioritized mental health services for youth, knowing that the causes and effects of homelessness are deeply traumatic. It’s not just the lack of housing that challenges youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. It’s the lack of access to effective mental health care and other supportive services which adds to the challenges and persistence of on-going trauma. Even the Surgeon General admits, the US “health care system today is not set up to optimally support the mental health and wellbeing of children and youth.”

What are we doing about it at Bridge? Seeing that our youth are increasingly disconnected due to the pandemic, we are strengthening and increasing our behavioral and mental health services in multiple ways by:

  • supporting additional training for our Behavioral Health Therapists, strengthening our array of evidence-based therapies, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT);
  • routinely screening youth for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES);
  • incorporating telehealth services to ensure youth can safely access counseling;
  • expanding access to psychiatric care and medication management as needed through our partnership with Mass General Hospital; and
  • integrating licensed clinicians directly into Bridge’s housing programs to bolster youth progress made during counseling sessions and apply learnings to daily life.
Meet the Author

Elisabeth Jackson

CEO, Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Policy makers, service providers, and others must acknowledge that the mental health crisis affecting youth experiencing homelessness needs major attention and resources if we are to intervene successfully and prevent homeless youth from becoming chronically homeless adults.  Bridge has made a commitment to the kids we serve to provide them with the mental health services they need, and we implore all service providers and decision-makers to heed the call of the Surgeon General, read the recent advisory, and take the advice and recommendations seriously. As a community, we need to prioritize mental health for all youth struggling with the many crises facing us today, and at the same time recognize the even more pressing needs of youth such as those experiencing homelessness and other trauma.

Elisabeth Jackson is the CEO of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, which provides a full continuum of care to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth.