Supporting Youth in a Widespread Mental Health Crisis
The Surgeon General's report highlights actionable steps, many tech-related.
Posted December 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- A new Surgeon General report focused on how to support youth through their current mental health crisis.
- The Surgeon General report recommends teens use technology to connect deeply with others, give back, and deliver support.
- To help improve teens' mental health, caregivers can model well, share their own journeys and challenges, and create an environment for support.
On Dec. 7, 2021 the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released a report called Protecting Youth Mental Health, focused on how to support youth through the mental health crisis they are facing. Of the 53 pages, the report spent only 3 pages setting up the cause for concern: Teens were already facing increasing mental health challenges and the pandemic has made them worse.
As a mental health expert, a scientist, and a mother of three, I was grateful to see the bulk of the report focused on how teens, and those that care about their wellbeing, can take actionable steps to help teens out of the mental health crisis they are currently facing.
The report mentions a number of research-backed strategies to support teens. Given the large amount of time teens spend online (one recent study showed a doubling of non-school-related screentime to 7.7 hours a day in March 2020 from 3.8 hours a day before the pandemic), it seems that strategies that incorporate technology should be prioritized right now.
Here are some of the strategies the report highlights for teens and parents with some ways that technology can help make them happen easily and effectively.
Strategies for Teens
The report asks teens to use the science of happiness to connect more deeply with supports in their life, including making time for loved ones (not just a quick text but a full call or longer virtual connection). The science of happiness suggests finding opportunities to give back, many of which are found online. Helping others promotes physiological changes in the brain linked to happiness. I often hear from teens that helping their friends is particularly gratifying, especially as they are seeing friends suffer from stress and mental health problems. Asking a friend how they are doing after a connection that didn’t go so well is easily done through text message or on social media. And speaking of social media, it’s important that teens are intentional about when social media use is getting out of control and focus on quality interactions. My post on positive online experiences shares some more tips for mood-boosting strategies on social.
Strategies for Parents and Caregivers
The report highlights many ways parents and caregivers can support teens. The first is classic: Be a good role model. As it relates to tech use, that means getting rid of tech for some clear times of the day or week and finding ways to connect deeply with your teens when you are not also online. Parents can do their part to reduce the stigma of mental health by sharing their own mental health journeys, and modeling that it’s ok to ask for help if teens need it themselves and to reach out if a friend needs support.
Around screentime, the report urges parents to watch out for how much time teens are spending online, the content they are consuming, and the impact it has on their wellbeing. If teens are feeling sad, scared, or angry after interactions online, chances are they could use a safe space for a check-in about why and an ear for support. Like with conversations about drugs and alcohol, I urge parents to ask open-ended questions, listen more than they talk (even if there are long pauses), and use a neutral topic to start the conversation so teens don’t feel bombarded (like the Surgeon General’s report or this post).
The Surgeon General’s report has a comprehensive list of resources for teens, parents, and others who care about teens and affect their lives. Here are a few that I have been recommending lately.
Youth Mental Health Support
- Youth Engaged 4 Change: Opportunities for youth to make a difference in the world
- Trevor Project: Suicide prevention and crisis intervention resources for LGBTQ+ young people
- The AAKOMA Project: Resources to support the mental health of youth of color and their caregivers
- Informed Immigrant: Tips for managing mental health for immigrants
Parent and Caregiver Support
- Centers for Disease Control: Resources for supporting children’s social, emotional, and mental health
- Common Sense Media: Guides for parents and resources including a recent webinar where I spoke about teens, technology, and mental health
- Child Mind Institute: Family resources on teen mental health and guidelines for kids of all ages
If technology is used to deliver science-backed support tools, teens will be more likely to access them, and they will be more likely to resonate and be impactful.
Nagata JM, Cortez CA, Cattle CJ, et al. Screen Time Use Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings From the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. JAMA Pediatr. Published online November 01, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.4334