Mental Health: Spotting the Warning Signs in Youth

Today Kate Endries, MSW, licensed social worker and BGCA Health & Wellness Director is bringing second in a three-part special series about Kids & Mental Health in partnership with our friends at On Our Sleeves: The Movement for Children’s Mental Health.

As we said in part one of this series, the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of all of the other deeply difficult things happening in the world right now, has had effects on the mental health of youth. As youth development professionals who are in their lives consistently, we have a role to play in helping young people explore and understand their own emotions and mental well-being, and in spotting warning signs that they may need additional support.

Because every child is different, warning signs may look different from child to child. However, there are some common ones to pay attention to. If you notice these signs in the youth you serve, it is important to address them, and know when and how to get help. If you have doubts, talk with someone who has experience with addressing mental health concerns. If youth are resistant to opening up to you, ask yourself if there are any other Club staff or adults in their life that they may be more comfortable talking to – parent or guardian, mentor, coach, relative, or religious leader. 

Struggling Mental Health GIF by YouTube - Find & Share on GIPHY

Signs a Youth May Need More Mental Health Support

  • Changes in school performance or poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums or outbursts of anger
  • Any substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities- at home, at school, and/or at the Club
  • Withdrawal from activities they once loved
  • Persistent sadness and/or hopelessness
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Risky sexual activity
  • Intense fear

On Our Sleeves has articles and support with more information on helping to manage youth well-being, including on topics such as anxiety, body image, relationships, school problems, and more. BGCA has ideas for Club staff on incorporating Emotional Wellness content into your summer programming, the recently revised SMART Moves program guides for both kids and teens, plus you can see the latest live and on-demand training opportunities on a Trauma-Informed Approach and Emotional Safety by visiting Spillett Leadership University.

Checking In Mental Health GIF by Seize the Awkward - Find & Share on GIPHY

Handling Youth Disclosures

  • If a young person discloses concerns about their own mental health, thank them for their openness and for sharing, and if it was in a group setting, follow up with them separately to ensure they have the support they need.
  • If a young person shares that they have suicidal thoughts or intentions, your priority is to keep them safe. For immediate safety and life-threatening mental health concerns, call 911, and contact a parent or caregiver. If the youth is not in immediate danger of suicide, but might benefit from speaking to a trained crisis professional, consider using the Crisis Text Line by texting “Club” to 741-741 and contacting a parent or caregiver.
  • If a youth discloses past or present abuse or neglect, follow the requirements of your state’s mandated reporting laws and your Club’s safety policies.

Remember that as a youth development professional, you are not expected to act as a therapist or counselor. You should, however, be able to recognize warning signs that a young person needs additional support and know some places to go for help.

You are not alone in supporting Club youth. If your Club has a social worker or therapist on staff, ask them to help during or after discussions with youth. If you do not have a mental health professional on staff and need additional guidance, contact your supervisor and create a plan for handling youth disclosures.

Stay Home Mental Health GIF by INTO ACTION - Find & Share on GIPHY

How do you meet youth mental health needs at your Club? What programming do you run around Emotional Wellness that other Clubs should know about? Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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