Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data from the first Youth Risk Behavior Survey that observed health behaviors and experiences among U.S. teens from 2011 to 2021.
The results were alarming.
Connecting with thousands of teens, the survey found that nearly all signs of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts have increased since 2011, with certain demographics more at risk than others. For example, in 2021, teen girls reported higher rates of sadness and more frequent thoughts of suicide than teen boys. Compared to their peers in other racial and ethnic groups, Black teens were more likely to attempt suicide.
In addition to the concerning trends surrounding mental well-being, even everyday behaviors within our children – such as their relationship with social media and internet use – have changed in troubling ways over the years and call for immediate action from parents and caring adults.
In February 2020, I led the launch of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, which works to address and raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing our youth. We could not have predicted how crucial our work would be going into lockdown the following month.
The Alliance supports kids and young adults, working with other industry leaders, conducting new research and providing relevant resources to educate both urban and rural communities about mental health.
In our work, we have clearly seen that prevention and intervention are two vital components of the solution to the mental health crisis. And while connecting more kids with mental health professionals such as therapists and psychiatrists might seem like a clear solution, it has its own obstacles, as the U.S. is facing a mental health professional shortage that is worsening the situation.
So, what can we do about it? While government and health care leaders work hard to address this mental health emergency and professional gap, we need to get creative and find new ways to ensure the safety of the children of today and tomorrow.
That’s why we’re working closely with community leaders who are teaching everyday adults how to act as the first line of defense in protecting our kids. These new intermediaries can be critical players in the mental health care pipeline.
Growing up, Lewis was able to work through his own mental health struggles while spending time at his aunt’s beauty salon. Inspired by his personal experience, Lewis created The Confess Project in 2016, which trains barbers and stylists to become mental health advocates and ensures that Black youth can receive the same care and support that he did as a child. To date, the organization has trained nearly 3,000 barbers, reaching more than 2.4 million people per year across 29 states.
Another innovator in the children’s mental health space is Rachel Miller, founder of Closegap.
Like Lewis, Miller struggled with mental health issues as a child, which significantly impacted her performance at school. She always wondered what would have happened had she received the support she needed from her teachers. In 2019, this idea inspired Miller to launch Closegap, a nonprofit focused on providing real-time mental health support and early crisis intervention for students in K-12 public schools through a free online mental health check-in tool. The platform detects concerns early and connects students with virtual or in-person help almost immediately. Since its founding in California, Closegap has grown to support schools and districts in all 50 states.
The Confess Project and Closegap are two members of the second cohort of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Innovation Awards. Through this initiative, we provide grants to nonprofits working on mental health solutions for youth in their local communities and beyond. To date, we have awarded a total of $1 million to 10 nonprofits across the country – and we just opened applications for our third cohort.
Other innovative organizations we’ve recognized this year are the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, which trains non-psychiatric nurses to identify and assist adolescents at risk of suicide; Strategies for Youth, which offers game-based trauma and distress coping strategies for LGBTQ+ youth; and Up2Us Sports, which equips coaches with social-emotional learning and mental wellness strategies through a digital app and video series. These nonprofits are creating stopgaps for youth in need, helping children and teens interact with caring adults in their everyday lives to address concerns.
While the Alliance continues to collaborate with other organizations and partners, we need more people to join us in this mission. Anyone can be a mental health advocate. It all begins with educating yourself about the signs of mental health challenges. Parents can talk to their children about ways to express themselves and build safe spaces for sharing. Health care professionals can seek to understand how mental health struggles might be physically manifesting in their patients. Even employers can provide mental health resources and training classes in the workplace.
If we all do our part – whether big or small – we can help to further normalize conversations about mental health and create a path to a mentally resilient future for everyone.