Science Shows How to Protect Kids’ Mental Health, but It’s Being Ignored

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Young people in the United States are facing a mental health crisis. The surgeon general, the American Academy of Pediatrics American Psychological Association and other prominent organisations, as well regular news reports, highlight this crisis. Parents are struggling to help their children and students line up in school halls to talk to counselors, psychologists, or social workers who are overwhelmed by young patients looking for services.

Has this current crisis been caused primarily by the pandemic? No. No. In 2022, we continue to fund a system to address children’s mental health that is similar to an infrastructure initiated in the 1940s, when returning veterans were the priority for mental health treatment. The system that emerged was and is geared towards adults.

Scientific advancements have identified effective mental healthcare practices, such as school-based emotion regulation training that teaches children to cope with strong emotions, or school-based screenings, which could help us detect mental health crises before these occur. Scientists have made great strides in mental health research, but they have been ignored for too long. Now is the time to take action. Based on centuries-old, long-proven theories that mental and physical health are two separate systems, billions of dollars are spent annually on medical research and doctor training. But, staggeringly little resources are available for advancement in psychological science and the development of a mental healthcare workforce.

The results are clear. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where one of us (Ethier) is the director of adolescent and school health, reveal that in the 10 years prior to the pandemic, a remarkably high number of young people reported feeling severe emotional distress. Specifically, in 2019, 37 percent of high school students questioned in a survey said they felt so sad and hopeless that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities, and about one in five U.S. teens seriously considered or attempted suicide. Adolescent girls, and youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or who were questioning their identity, were overrepresented among those teens who considered or attempted suicide.

The situation has gotten worse since the pandemic. The situation has worsened since the pandemic began. Children who were already vulnerable were now in crisis. Those who were less vulnerable were at greater risk of developing psychological symptoms.

During COVID, the number of adolescent visits in emergency rooms for suicide attempts as well as eating disorders and other mental health issues increased. The CDC’s Adolescent Behaviours and Experiences Survey , was the first nationally representative survey of high school students in the United States during the pandemic. It revealed that young people’s lives were disrupted in unexpected ways or were more difficult to manage.

A quarter of American youth reported experiencing hunger and half said they were subject to emotional abuse from their parents. We also heard that more than 60 percent of Asian students and more than half of Black students experienced racism in their schools. Prepandemic, emotional distress, and suicidal thoughts, and behaviors, continued to worsen. These problems were more prevalent among female students and LGBQ students.

Now a crisis that existed before the pandemic has been worsened, leaving many to wonder how to solve it. The answer lies in scientific discoveries made by one of us (Prinstein), and colleagues in psychology over the past decades, but which were largely ignored when developing policies and best practices for schools, homes, and communities.

Scientists now have evidence-based treatments for severe psychological symptoms. However, few caregivers are able to find treatments that work.

Science has also identified effective strategies for preventing emotional or behavioral distress. This includes teaching children skills to help them understand and cope with stressors, how they can build healthy social relationships, how to lower anxiety, and how you can spot warning signs of depression. These prevention strategies are not easily accessible or can be used in the most vulnerable populations. Youth continue to suffer in pain. Schools spend time teaching children how to brush their teeth. But they don’t teach science-based mental health strategies. These strategies could prevent years of emotional distress and help youth stop self-harm.

These approaches are confirmed by

CDC data. Data show that students who felt connected to their school during the pandemic were less likely to experience emotional distress, other indicators of poor mental well-being, and suicide attempts and plans. Prior to the pandemic, we were making progress in addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth, for example. By 2018, 79 percent of high schools reported identifying safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, 96 percent had anti-harassment policies, 77 percent had inclusivity professional development for school staff, and 64 percent had student-led clubs for LGBTQ youth.

Recent CDC research found that having these four policies and practices in place at school not only improved mental health for LGBTQ students, but for non-LGBTQ youth as well. Similar results can be seen with antiracism programs, which make schools less toxic for historically minority youth and improve the health of all students.

These approaches are not controversial. These methods are not controversial. Classroom management techniques can be used to increase connectedness. They encourage cooperative, cooperative, and collaborative behavior, reduce peer victimization, and help youth understand how others feel. Psychological prevention strategies teach youth how they can less often blame themselves for bad experiences, how to make their peers feel valued and included, as well as how to think about adaptive and healthy responses when faced with aggression.

But these methods, which are based on decades-old science, will require that we acknowledge the crisis in children’s mental health. It is essential to commit to the science and behavior. Also, it is important that innovative programs are implemented by scholars who have not been published in scientific journals.

Failing to address this mental crisis will not only result in the distress of millions upon millions of U.S. youth today, but also a change in productivity, success, happiness, and well-being for U.S. citizens as this generation matures.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Mitch Prinstein is chief science officer of the American Psychological Association. He is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Miami. Follow Prinstein on Twitter @mitchprinstein

      Kathleen A. Ethier is director of adolescent and school health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is a social psychologist by training from the City University of New York. Follow the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health on Twitter @CDC_DASH and follow Ethier on Twitter @ethierka The findings and conclusions in this paper are those of t

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