Understanding and addressing youth mental health challenges

It’s not always easy being young, but throw in a pandemic with the isolation, uncertainty and missed milestones that go with it, it’s not only hard but can lead to mental health challenges. Unlike adults who’ve had years of experiences that help develop coping skills, kids are still learning and growing.

In his 2021 advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., said, “…the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”

Murthy noted recent surveys show one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.

Here in Oregon, the University of Oregon announced plans in early March to create the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health at the former Concordia University campus in Northeast Portland. The institute is being made possible by a more than $425 million donation from Steve and Connie Ballmer, co-founders of Ballmer Group Philanthropy.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports the institute will work with “university research programs, public schools and community groups to create and deliver intervention and treatment programs for K-12 students.”

Perhaps the need for such services for our youth has never been greater. Today they face not only personal losses – the missed parties, trips, ceremonies and, of course, loved ones – but matters well beyond their control, such as racial injustice and climate change.

a group of teenagers posing on a bridge, outside of Youth Era headquarters in Eugene
Youth Era advisory council outside of their headquarters in downtown Eugene, Oregon. 

“The theory is that young people take in information from these social climates,” said Martin Rafferty, CEO of Youth Era, a Eugene-based organization working to empower young people. “Social media has been around all of their lives. But this is the first time for the Zoomer population [9 to 23-year-olds] that a crisis has happened like this. When you think back to the great crises that have happened in history, we never had the media and technology we have now. The fact is, this kind of doom scrolling is surrounding every aspect of their lives, in waking hours at least. Young people are sponges, and they are taking it in at a very high level.”

For young people of color, the stressors are even greater, according to Bernardino De La Torre, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) youth substance use disorder (SUD) program and policy coordinator.

“Youth experience discrimination through peer bullying and outright racist comments,” De La Torre said. “It creates multiple issues for youth where they may feel lower self-esteem, may feel less valued and begin to internalize some of this stuff. That’s how it can impact them to a point where depression or self-hating can become deeper due to this behavior toward them. When they get help, self-esteem goes up. When they don’t get help, self-esteem goes down and may lead to substance abuse.”

So, how can adults help?

Lev Schneidman, an OHA COVID-19 recovery school health program coordinator, suggests starting by simply asking what they need and letting them know they don’t have to go it alone. Find out what resources are available locally and online.  

“There is a lot of support online these days,” Schneidman said. “I think there are some adults who don’t quite understand younger peoples’ relationship to technology and the internet. One way they can help is by trying to use it as a resource and not being afraid of it.”

And, according to Martin Rafferty, be aware that self-help solutions aren’t what young people need. “What young people need is family members and friends to reach out to them,” Rafferty said. “When young people have caring family members or friends who reach out to them on a regular basis, they do better.”

Some places to look for help: