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Empty Sky

Hope and a three-step approach to improving youth mental health

Jonas_Fehre from Pixabay
Source: Jonas_Fehre from Pixabay

With Labor Day Weekend in the rearview mirror, the official start of Fall (aka the autumnal equinox) is not far away. And then there’s the end of daylight saving time when springing forward is replaced by falling back. All in all, it doesn’t seem too promising.

This historic time of new beginnings, of looking forward, and looking up may, because of the global pandemic, seem like, well, just more of the same. And that’s bad news for a country already grappling with a drastic increase in youth mental illness (NAMI, 2019).

Nowhere are those grim findings more on display than with the recent release of a 10-year study on suicide rates among 10- to 24-year-olds, as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Curtin and Heron, 2019).

  • After a stable period from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates for persons aged 10-24 increased from 2007 to 2017, increasing 56%.
  • The suicide rate for persons aged 10-14 declined from 2000 (1.5) to 2007 (0.9), and then nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.

For months, mental health professionals were left simply hypothesizing about the effects of the coronavirus, suggesting that the social/emotional wellness among America’s young people must surely be in decline given concerns over loss of routines, loss of rites of passage, and loss of social interaction.

But now the data are in.

According to Active Minds, an organization dedicated to saving lives and to building stronger families and communities by supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults, a recent study of high school and college students revealed that 74% have experienced stress or anxiety as a result of COVID-19. Among college students, 20% say their mental health has significantly worsened during the outbreak, with 74% citing maintaining a routine as a challenge (Active Minds, 2020b).

Of course, young people are not alone in experiencing the negative effects associated with the disquieting numbers the pandemic has brought.

Total Brain, which offers an app measuring key brain capacities associated with mental states, reports, “The pandemic changed life abruptly in the U.S., and it has been challenging our flexibility and adaptability ever since. For approximately five months, American workers have been dealing with small and large disruptions to their daily lives as a result of COVID-19. During that time, the increased mental and emotional strain of COVID-19 has been weighing on working Americans. That strain is triggering an ongoing heightened threat response in our brains that is apparent month after month. … The elevated stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues we have been seeing for months are continuing to affect the American workforce” (Total Brain, 2020).

Soon, Total Brain, in collaboration with the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and Clemson and Coastal Carolina universities, will launch a Youth Mental Health in America Index, similar to what it currently catalogs among the country’s workers.

Research is good, awareness is better, and action is best.

Organizations like CARE, The Jason Foundation (JFI), and the Jed Foundation (JED) are operationalizing data to 1) better screen, 2) refer, and 3) treat mental illness among youth.

For its part, JFI provides much-needed attention to potential warning signs of mental distress and possible suicidal ideation (JFI, 2020).

  • Depression, mental illness, and substance abuse.
  • Aggression and fighting.
  • Home environment.
  • Community environment (exposure to community violence).
  • School environment (relationships with teachers and peers).
  • Previous attempts.
  • Cultural factors (gender roles and expectations, conformity and assimilation, isolation, and victimization).
  • Family history, stresses.
  • Self-mutilation.
  • Situational crises (loss of an important relationship, parental divorce, sexual abuse).

JED advises, “Across the nation, people are dealing with sudden changes to their regular schedules and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, and even loss and grief, as a result of COVID-19. It’s completely expected and appropriate to experience fear during situations like these. It’s also important to know how to manage overwhelming anxiety and keep perspective as the situation unfolds.” And JED offers resources and tips to help young people, parents and guardians, and professionals who may be helpful during this time (JED, 2020).

One antidote recommended by Newport Academy, a series of evidence-based healing centers for adolescents and families struggling with mental health issues, eating disorders, and substance abuse: Hope.

In frightening and uncertain times, it’s hard to feel hopeful. But studies show that having hope for the future helps build our resilience—the ability to get through tough times and recover more quickly from setbacks. Moreover, hope can help ward off or reduce, anxiety, trauma, and depression (Newport Academy, 2020).

Newport Academy adds the following.

As we might expect during a pandemic—coupled in this country with stark political division and civil unrest—young people aren’t particularly hopeful about their future right now. A survey released June 17, commissioned by National 4‑H Council and conducted by the Harris Poll, found that 70 percent of teens are struggling with their mental health. Furthermore, 65 percent of the 1,500 teens surveyed (ages 13–19) said that uncertainty about the future was making them anxious or depressed. On the positive side, 68 percent of teens considered themselves to be resilient—equipped to handle life’s challenges.

As for young adults, a global survey of Gen Z and millennials conducted by Deloitte in late 2019 and early 2020 found that this age group’s levels of hopefulness for the world and their future had gone down slightly from the previous survey. After the pandemic set in, however, Deloitte did a “pulse survey” of a smaller number of young adults. This time, not surprisingly, they found a significant drop in hope and optimism.

Perhaps it’s time for a resurgence of such hope and optimism, so that when young people look forward, and up, they’ll see limitless possibilities rather than an empty sky.

References

Active Minds. (2020a). Mission and impact. https://www.activeminds.org/about-us/mission-and-impact/ (9 Sept. 2020).

Active Minds. (2020b). April 2020 survey data. https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey/?sm_guid=MzM4MTg0fDI4ODczNDE4… (9 Sept. 2020).

Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (9 Sept. 2020).

JED. (2020). JED’s coronavirus mental health resource guide. https://www.jedfoundation.org/jeds-covid-19-resource-guide/ (9 Sept. 2020).

JFI. (2020). Risk factors. Youth Suicide. The Jason Foundation, Inc. https://jasonfoundation.com/youth-suicide/risk-factors/ (9 Sept. 2020).

NAMI. (2019). Mental health by the numbers. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers (9 Sept. 2020).

Newport Academy. (2020). The connection between hope and mental health. July 6, 2020. https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/hope-and-mental-…. (9 Sept. 2020).

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (2020a). Autumnal Equinox 2020: The first day of fall. September 8, 2020. https://www.almanac.com/content/first-day-fall-autumnal-equinox# (9 Sept. 2020).

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (2020b). Daylight Saving Time 2020: When does the time change? The Old Farmer’s Almanac. August 2, 2020. https://www.almanac.com/content/when-daylight-saving-time (9 Sept. 2020).

Total Brain. (2020). Mental health index: U.S. worker edition July 2020 update. https://www.totalbrain.com/mentalhealthindex/ (9 Sept. 2020).

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