We need new solutions to the crisis in youth mental health

Young people are spending more time on social media, and the resulting mental health problems are the “defining public health issue of our time,” according to a new surgeon general report.

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Students head to class at Lane Tech High School in April 2021.

Teens are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis and need different approaches to their care, a Chicago health care professional writes.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Over the last few years, mental health professionals have made it clear: Young people are in crisis. Depression and anxiety in teenagers are on the rise, and young people are facing challenges that previous generations haven’t experienced.

Now, a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General confirms the severity of the issue and shows that increased social media use is only exacerbating it. According to the 2023 Social Media and Youth Mental Health Advisory, algorithms, push notifications, the need for “likes,” and more are contributing to an unprecedented mental health crisis among young people that the report deems the “defining public health issue of our time.”

The report’s conclusion didn’t come as a surprise to those of us in the mental health profession. We have seen young peoples’ mental health worsen amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an ever-changing and growing social media landscape. This report further validated what we’ve seen and illustrates how the time teenagers are spending on social media correlates with continually worsening mental health effects.

Over the last decade, social media usage among teens has skyrocketed. According to the report, 95% of teens ages 13-17 report being active on social media, and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” That’s an alarming trend, given that the report also found that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media face twice the risk of experiencing mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

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Thankfully, Generation Z and millennials have made great strides in de-stigmatizing conversations about mental illness. But the challenges young people face require more than just open conversation — they need support. However, because of social media’s rapid evolution, understanding what youth and young adults are experiencing and how to address their needs can be difficult for mental health professionals who may be from older generations.

Young people need more robust, tailored support systems, and healthy ways to cope with the world they’ve grown up in. Health care for young people needs to be different from that of adults who grew up under other circumstances. Youth and young adults with complex trauma or serious mental illnesses, like episodes of psychosis, need rapid and early intervention, but our current mental health care system is not set up for them.

Getting advice from peers

If youth and young adult mental health is truly the “defining public health issue of our time,” we need to restructure our mental health care to center younger generations. Adults may not always understand the impact of social media on a developing mind, so teens might need more support from their peers. Thresholds has introduced a youth peer advisory council, allowing young people to speak to others their age about the mental health issues they’ve experienced, which can create a less judgmental and more affirming environment.

Young people’s brains are still developing, and social media may affect them differently than it does adults. At Thresholds, we have launched young-adult-specific versions of our programming to better support young people and provide them with the most personalized care that we can.

Updating mental health care practices is a start, but this issue won’t just be solved between practitioners and patients. Things need to change at a structural level. Thresholds helped pass Illinois’ Children and Young Adult Mental Health Crisis Act, requiring commercial insurance providers to cover these important treatment models and to reduce barriers to treatment. We championed the Mental Health and Wellness Act, which requires private insurers to cover an annual mental health visit with no co-pay or deductible.

If we want to support the next generation, we need to change how we think about their mental health care. Policymakers need to step up and ensure that resources continue to go toward this issue, and we as health care professionals need to change our mindsets about working with young people. It’s time to strive for new solutions for youth and young adults at every level we can.

Debbie Pavick is chief clinical officer of Thresholds, one of Illinois’ largest providers of community-based mental health and substance use treatment services.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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