Helping Teens Address America’s Mental Health Crisis

Signs of anxiety and depression started early for me, but I didn’t have the language in elementary or middle school to talk about it—nor did I have the tools to deal with it. By my senior year of high school, I had hit rock bottom. Completely disturbed and desperate, after weeks of barely sleeping or eating, I finally dragged myself to a school counselor. I was student body president and president of our drama club and was too embarrassed to ask for help. But my hopelessness scared me enough to overcome my shame and I got the critical help I needed.

I’ve spent my entire adult life searching for and developing tools to help me deal with my anxiety and depression, but I wish I had these tools as a teenager. Our children today desperately need these tools – even more than I do. I didn’t deal with the added anxiety of gun violence in schools, the trauma of the pandemic, and the intense pressure of social media. And as a mother of two, I worry about the effects these external stressors are having on my own children.

The statistics on mental disorders among high school students are alarming. Forty-two percent of high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and nearly a quarter said they had seriously considered suicide in 2021, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. A 2020 Cigna study also revealed that loneliness is at epidemic levels in this country, with over 70 percent of Gen Z Americans reporting feeling lonely and isolated. We are in the midst of a severe mental health crisis among young people.

Among LGBTQ youth, the numbers are higher: 45 percent of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide in the past year. And 60 percent of LGBTQ youth who sought mental health care in the past year were unable to receive it, according to a study by the Trevor Project.

These stark statistics represent hundreds of thousands of young Americans. They are our children, our neighbors, our friends, our students, and they urgently need support and resources. I regularly hear from Vermonters who feel ill-prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

I’ve learned that the first vital step in addressing this crisis is to address the stigma head-on. To combat the stigma surrounding mental health treatment, we need to normalize the experience. Admitting mental illness doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. When we speak openly about it, we give others permission and courage to also speak openly and promote healing. That’s why I’m committed to being open about my own struggles as I introduce legislation that empowers our youth to support each other in times of crisis.

The Mental Health Peer Education and Emergency Response (PEER) Act creates a grant program that supports mental health first aid training for teachers, school personnel, parents, caregivers, and students. This training helps us identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in ourselves and others. It includes training in risk assessment, non-judgmental listening, providing information and reassurance, encouraging professional help as well as self-help strategies. This law will build on the tremendous work that has already been done to support early intervention and the development of mental health and wellness.

We know that trained peer intervention can make a real difference to those experiencing mental health problems. A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis of mental health first aid training found that those with mental health first aid training had more knowledge; demonstrated improved recognition of mental disorders; show less stigmatizing beliefs; and were better able to help a person showing symptoms of mental health problems.

When I was a middle school classroom teacher, we often offered first aid and CPR training for our students. They were voracious learners and wanted tools that would be useful to friends and community members. More than first aid and CPR, mental health first aid is what is most needed now, based on my conversations with parents, teachers, and students.

Mental health first aid training does not and should not replace training, recruiting and hiring more counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. We need more mental health professionals in every congressional district in this country. We must also invest in professional intervention resources, but our children want and need to be equipped with the knowledge to uplift and support their friends and classmates. My students tell me that they have already been asked to do this by their friends, but they don’t have the knowledge. This makes them feel overwhelmed.

To fully support America’s youth, this must be another tool in the resource pool. We cannot take our eyes off their suffering. We must stand with them and make a commitment to do better for them and their families. To address this mental health crisis—an emergency that affects every community and congressional district—I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in investing in practical, cost-effective, and immediate solutions to equip our children and teenagers with tools to help them lead healthier, more stable and fulfilling lives.

Becca Balint represents Vermont as a whole.

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