Young People Navigating the American Mental Health Landscape

Source: Chuttersnap on Stocksnap With soaring rates of youth mental illness across America and a…

Young People Navigating the American Mental Health Landscape
Young People Navigating the American Mental Health Landscape

Source: Chuttersnap on Stocksnap

With soaring rates of youth mental illness across America and a troubling shortage of professionals to treat them, young people are often left to their own devices to seek help.

And as much as parents and other caring adults exhort them to seek help when things aren’t going well, many youths simply don’t know where to turn or how to ask for support. Thus, it’s not enough to say, “Find someone who can help you,” Rather, it needs to be accompanied by a strategy of who to ask and what to say.

According to University Hospitals (2023),

Mental health conditions among children, teens and young adults – specifically, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and an alarming trend toward suicide – is a growing problem in this country … This problem existed long before COVID, but now, with the pandemic, risk factors such as isolation and excessive screen time may be heightened and parents need to be especially watchful.

The role of social media cannot be overstated. In fact, a January 2023 study from the University of North Carolina found adolescent participants

who engaged in habitual checking behaviors showed a distinct neurodevelopmental trajectory within regions of the brain comprising the affective salience, motivational, and cognitive control networks in response to anticipating social rewards and punishments compared with those who engaged in nonhabitual checking behaviors.

In other words, students who check social media habitually may be more prone to peer feedback and hypersensitivity, and possible impulse control and regulation dysfunction.

What are some things to look for? The following are some signs that it’s time to ask for help. Most of it comes down to “change.”

The change markers include mood, sleep, school performance, diet, friendships, and overall physical health.

Two young people, Cameron Gray, 21, and Catie Klein, 18, shared their different journeys to finding help.

Here’s what Cameron had to say.

Let me paint the picture for you. I was a sophomore on a college campus for the first time, thousands of miles away from home and trying to navigate a long-distance relationship. When this relationship ultimately ended, it was time for the upcoming baseball season. So not only did I have the stresses of being a sophomore college athlete, having to prove myself every practice to become a starter, I also had the stress of coursework and the ending of a long-term relationship. I was in shambles.

I lost a part of me that I did not know how to get back. We had a very poor season with very few wins, which mentally was the most difficult thing I had to go through. Wake up for pre-sunrise lifts followed by classes then practice and games. I had to find the motivation to go through my days all while still trying to process my relationship.

This feeling of not being able to wake up and not feeling “right” was a new experience for me. I soon began to find ways to get help because, like most people, I hated the way I felt in this situation. I reached out to my parents and talked with them often. I am very close with my family and they offered help and insight that at a minimum was helpful but I needed more than just my parents and brother saying things will be okay.

I reached out to the school’s counseling office to try and find a therapist to talk to. They were full! So, I contacted a therapist recommended by my father and began weekly sessions throughout the spring. I also began to see a sports psychologist in order to find ways to cope with game-time stress and a losing season.

These two people were a tremendous help on my path to mental stability. This support, mixed with loving and caring friends who would talk with me and not necessarily give advice but just listen, was one of the more helpful things. Once the season ended and school was over, I was able to head back home and focus on what I wanted to do.

The mix of baseball, school, and not being able to process my past relationship sent me to a dark place. It was not until I was home for the summer that I was able to process things fully and become the best version of myself mentally and physically.

Catie’s story is different but no less important!

Alone is often the word that many of my peers and I associate with mental health struggles. It is often felt that when we are dealing with something, we are the only ones who are having that internal struggle, when in reality, those around us may be as well.

Throughout my personal experiences with anxiety, I have come to learn that the best method of understanding that you are not alone in what you are going through is peer-to-peer support. With all the pressure put on teens nowadays to appear “perfect,” this is a word many of my peers use to describe their mental health experiences.

People try to put up a front that there is nothing wrong with them, and thus it is often felt that we are the only ones going through hard times mentally, while it is a problem faced by many. I have found that the best solution to alleviate this feeling of loneliness and isolation is peer-to-peer support. As a leader of my school’s mental health initiative, BWell, I became more aware of just how many of my peers are going through mental health struggles.

In January of 2022, BWell hosted a ‘You’re Not Alone’ conference for our upper school community. This conference featured student and faculty speakers sharing their personal experiences with mental health struggles.

Following the conference, all of our speakers and leadership team had students coming up to us explaining how they were finally able to understand that they were not alone in what they were going through. This exemplified, for me, just how powerful of a force peer-to-peer understanding is.

Critically, Cameron speaks to the importance of resilience in weathering mental health challenges, while Catie amplifies the importance of peer-to-peer support.


Personal resilience (or the ability to bounce back from adversity) is all the rage. And that’s a good thing, as it’s widely believed that much of the younger generation has been granted little, if any, coaching on how to solve problems and find adults who can help them.

Tips for parents wanting to grow resilience in their teens include:

  • Modeling a positive attitude
  • Being honest
  • Encouraging to take risks
  • Helping them establish a routine
  • Deepening your connection
  • Listening and helping to problem solve
  • Modeling mindfulness
  • Teaching self-care

Cameron’s approach to adversity is likely the most common: turn to family (or friends) who can offer support and guidance.

Catie’s approach is also quite common: finding support through peer groups, a model that Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) utilized to turn back the scourge of impaired driving and deaths among young people.

It is a strategy on the rise. For example, when students at Yale University filed a lawsuit against the university for “a lack of access to appropriate support, as well as discrimination against students struggling with their mental health, [that] are all too common on American campuses,” the result was the founding of an organization called LETS (Let’s Erase the Stigma Project). It’s now a national grassroots nonprofit focusing on creating innovative peer-led alternatives to our current mental health system, including peer support and communicative care, political advocacy, organizing, and mutual aid (Spencer, 2023).

Resilience Essential Reads

Nothing in the field of youth mental health is more alarming than the ever-climbing rates of suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading causes of death among adolescents aged 15-19 are accidents (unintentional injuries), homicide, and suicide. In 2022, the age-adjusted suicide rate increased by 3 percent from 2020 (22.0 per 100,000 to 2021 (CDC, 2021).

If nothing else, the stories of Cameron and Catie provide insights into how today’s youth are proactively addressing the sprawling epidemic of declining youth mental health in America.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.