What Can We Do About the Youth Mental Health Crisis?

woman sitting outside in the sun

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Young people in the United States were experiencing a mental health crisis before the pandemic hit. 
  • COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated this problem, creating a dire situation for youths across the country.
  • Parents and caregivers can take a number of steps to support the young people in their lives and help curb this crisis.

COVID-19 has had wide-ranging impacts on nearly all aspects of life, creating other kinds of dire public health issues in its wake. One of the biggest is the youth mental health crisis. 

The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a 53-page health advisory, calling the challenges young people face “unprecedented” and “uniquely hard to navigate” with devastating effects on their mental health. 

According to the advisory, in 2019, 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—and that was pre-pandemic.

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” the advisory read.

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a therapist and family psychiatrist at LifeStance Health, told Verywell she’s seen a number of concerning trends in her child and adolescent patients since the start of the pandemic, including an increase in anxiety and social anxiety, stunted emotional development and a rise in eating disorders in both girls and boys. 

This is the result of a number of compounding factors, she said, such as a lack of in-person socialization and a loss of resources. Many have also missed out on crucial developmental milestones. 

“In addition to the uncertainty and forced isolation associated with the pandemic, I think a key contributing factor is youth feeling like they’ve lost their support system,” Patel-Dunn said. 

Laura Geftman, LCSW, a mental health consultant, told Verywell that many young people were cut off from their social circle and daily routine. “Normal teenage stresses on top of all of that can be very destabilizing for a young person," she said.

Kids are also spending more time on social media now than ever, Geftman added. The world of social media is a breeding ground for obsessing over likes, photoshopped influencers, self-proclaimed experts, the glorification of unhealthy habits—all of which can affect self-esteem and overall well-being, she said, subsequently increasing the risk of mental illness.

Public health measures in schools, while necessary for physical safety, have also created a more stressful and anxiety-ridden environment for young people. 

How We Can Offer Support

Experts say there are a number of steps people can take to support the young people in their lives and ensure they’re getting the help they need.

According to Kristine Ovsepian, MA, CHt, a certified hypnotherapist, teaching young people stress-relieving techniques—such as deep breathing and meditation—can be a great way to help improve their mental health. 

"Ask them to breathe slowly and deeply, to focus on their heart center, and imagine a golden white light wrapping around them,” Ovsepian said. “Encourage them to find within themselves a feeling of gratitude, and once they’ve found it, to hold it in their hearts.”

Using positive affirmations and reminding youths that pandemic restrictions are in place to keep them safe rather than emphasizing health risks and dangers can help, she added. Encouraging young people to step away from technology, be physically active and spend time in nature can is another invaluable way to improve their mental health.

"It can be as simple as a regular stroll down a local nature trail or a couple loops around the park,” Ovsepian said. “Just make it routine, and do your best to ensure it’s an enjoyable experience for them. If they want to mind their own space and listen to music the whole time, let them.”

Geftman added that it's important for parents and caregivers to reassure their kids that they're cared for unconditionally and continue to offer support even if it's declined initially.

It can also be beneficial for parents and caregivers to educate themselves about the telltale signs of worsening mental illness, so they can provide early intervention and access to professional help when needed. 

“It's helpful to learn how to have conversations about mental health, and create a space to discuss these feelings openly and honestly,” Geftman said. “Providing a foundation for love, support and a positive relationship is essential.”

What This Means For You

If a young person in your life is struggling with mental illness, try having an open and honest conversation about their experiences. You can teach them self-care techniques to help them cope, and seek professional help if their mental health continues to decline.

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.