Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of mental health challenges— in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009. Most people would rightfully associate this state of affairs to the pandemic, which it substantially is, but the same survey results show that nearly all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased from 2011 to 2021. The gradual deterioration since 2011 indicates that we need to look beyond the pandemic for the cause. The CDC has already tracked the mental state of youth since 2007 and multiple institutions have come up with remedial measures that stakeholders could have used. The question that we need to ask is why is this phenomenon getting worse year after year and what is it that we may be missing when trying to resolve the situation.
What is Youth Mental Health?
Mental health can be shaped by our genes, brain chemistry, our relationships with family and friends, neighborhood conditions, and larger social forces and policies. Some of the triggers that can impact youth mental health may include messages through the media and popular culture that erode young people’s sense of self-worth—telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough. That comes in addition to concerns about climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence, which they are exposed to daily. And while technology platforms have improved our lives in important ways, for many people, they can also have adverse effects. When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.
Although this mental health deterioration started before the pandemic, COVID-19 dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community. The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced. Alarmed by the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey that was published on February 15, 2023, multiple stakeholders jumped to express their opinions and try to help the situation.
Existing Solutions for Youth Mental Health
The U.S. Surgeon General’s report about ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health’ provides an exhaustive analysis of mental health issues and a thorough list of remedies that young people can use. The solutions they lay out are based on the assumption that supporting the mental health of children and youth will require a whole-of-society effort to address longstanding challenges, strengthen the resilience of young people, support their families and communities, and mitigate the pandemic’s mental health impacts. Therefore, solutions are broken down to include specific actions that young people, family members, educators, health care organizations, media organizations, social media companies, community organizations, funders, employers, and governments can do.
Solutions offered in the Surgeon General’s report are diverse and include a description of what youth and their families can do. A To Do list for each of these mental health contributors provides a detailed description of what they need to do to optimize their contribution to mental well being. Unfortunately, the possibility that all these contributors will work in tandem to resolve youth mental health is remote and therefore should be determined by the local conditions of each case. However, even if a student’s immediate mental health issues are resolved using these measures, the long term solution is the one that does not get enough attention.
Long Term Solutions for Youth Mental Health
When thinking of long term solutions I like to go back all the way to very young children. I look at my granddaughter who does not miss any opportunity to emulate what her parents or other adults are doing. She has a toy kitchen and prepares breakfast for her family. She takes care of her dolls just like her mother takes care of her. It is amazing to see how these young kids are born with a natural drive to learn from parents, older siblings or adults in general. This is not work, it is part of their play and as long as they are left alone to explore and observe they keep doing it. Their intrinsic motivation is to step into adult shoes with confidence as soon as they can.
In school, the real-life learning they practiced as young kids changes to a series of subjects divorced from any real-life context. As they continue this type of learning, they get completely detached from the goal of their learning. A question that students frequently ask is ‘Why do I need to learn this?,’ ‘How does this help me?.’ To make the case that humans were destined to learn in order to manage their own life with confidence, I like to turn to prehistoric and primitive cultures as they were transmitting daily survival skills to the younger generation. The entire goal of their education was to ensure that the younger generation could confidently perform the chores necessary for daily survival. Daily repetition of those chores led the children to an adult-level proficiency necessary to become equal contributors to their family’s survival and a stepping stone for later establishing their own families.
Of course, we are much more advanced than those ancient societies and I am not recommending that we lower our children’s education to those basic survival skills. But I think that we can learn a lot from the confidence with which young kids were assuming adult roles in those societies. John Dewey, 20th-century American educational theorist and philosopher, who believed in learning that’s grounded in experience and driven by student interest, understood this. By stating that “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” John Dewey not only ties education back to its prehistoric and primitive roots, but also clearly states the goal of education should be to train students to become capable active participants in daily life.
Learning should always measure whether students are learning the skills they will need to confidently step into their roles in life. Teachers need to make sure that students can connect with the problems they’re trying to solve and make them feel that their learning can help them in life. There’s also an important psychological aspect of giving students the feeling that they are a team of employees solving a real problem in their workplace. The more realistic the scenarios seem to students, the more wholeheartedly they will engage and commit to solving the problem.
In contrast, in the traditional classroom, learning in general is divorced from instilling students with skills they will need to confidently step into their roles in life. In fact, the majority of students have no clue what they want to do in life when they finish high school. This lack of direction and goal is detrimental to students’ mental health. This not knowing of what is one’s goal in life or one’s role in society, can very fast develop into a feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem. The road from here to a full fledged depression is not long. Of course, there are other factors that contribute to depression, but a feeling of confidence in one’s skill and direction can assuage the deterioration towards depression.
Learning How to Live in Finland
One place that takes preparing youth for their life roles seriously is Finland. Their school system is known to be one of the best in the world and their educational philosophy, which is based on John Dewey’s philosophy, makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. Following this line of thought, regular school in Finland lasts only until 1 PM, at which point students follow up their education in Youth Centers, where they are encouraged to find their voice, be engaged citizens, explore hobbies and interests, and connect with peers and caring adults. Additionally, youth voice is encouraged and youth have a voice in laws and decisions that impact them in the government. Youth councils are mandated by law in Finland and provide a space for youth to use their voice on issues that impact them.
The Vermont Youth Project
One place that understands the connection between mental health and the ability to step into life with confidence is the state of Vermont. In 2017, due to the growing number of substance abuse and student mental health, which exceeded those of the entire U.S., the state decided to look into the possibility that a more long term remedial approach was needed. Their hypothesis was that there might be a connection between mental health and student preparedness for life. Through its Vermont After School organization, they decided to invite Dr. Siurala, the Finnish father of youth work and the former Director of Youth Services in Helsinki for many years, to learn from him and Finland on how they can support young people in Vermont. Finland is a country that is passionately committed to helping its youth succeed – not just in school and at work but at life. All children and youth are encouraged to find a “hobby” or interest, with trained “youth workers” supporting young people in growing up, getting ready for independent life, and feeling included in society.
Based on what they learned from a visit to Finland and from Dr. Siurala, they created The Vermont Youth Project (VYP), a statewide initiative supporting communities with creating a built environment that embraces positive youth development. As the state developer and manager of VYP, Vermont Afterschool helps participating communities with establishing local coalitions centered around positive youth development, creating localized plans to address risk and protective factors of youth, supporting youth voice and engagement, and building cross-sector partnerships and collaboration. Communities that participate in VYP commit to empowering youth and creating healthy accessible spaces for youth to be themselves, engage with peers, learn new skills, and connect with caring adults.
In a small, rural state such as Vermont, out-of-school time programs and resources play a critical role in efforts to break the cycle of addiction and heal opioid-affected communities. Positive youth development emphasizes building on youth’s strengths, creating opportunities to help youth achieve goals, fosters healthy relationships, and promotes protective factors. Vermont students who participate in up to 19 hours of extracurricular activities each week are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or get depressed than those who do not participate in any activities. Two out of three Vermont parents agree that afterschool programs make it less likely for youth to engage in risky behaviors. Participation in consistent, high-quality out-of-school programs are a known protective factor against substance use and risky behaviors. Organized quality activities, trained after school leaders, and accessible opportunities that out-of-school programs can provide are an effective primary prevention strategy.
Since it is much more difficult to transform education to become more goal oriented and project-based, these out-of-school programs can serve as the missing piece solution that students struggling with substance abuse and mental health need to practice for directing them towards a permanent route of mental well being. This type of daily purposeful engagement can develop in students the life skills and confidence that are necessary when life throws a wrench at their path.