We are excited to introduce you today to Polina Aleshina, BGCA’s Director of Research & Evaluation, for the first time on the ClubX Blog! It will be the first of many Polina posts if I have anything to do with it!!
Please note: This post has references to mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers. For immediate assistance during a crisis, call 911. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line for free support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I want to open our deep dive into youth mental health research with an incredibly timely quote from Justin Clark’s recent post about good words for the new year, “We as adults have been burned out, confused, frustrated…our routines disrupted, our plans interrupted, and our societal norms turned on their heads. So it makes sense that our members are feeling the same and responding in the way they know how. Doesn’t excuse behavior, but helps explain it.”
Maybe you’ve noticed a change in the behaviors of some of the young people at your Club or Youth Center or maybe, you’ve heard the U.S. Surgeon General advisory that flags youth mental health as a public health crisis. No matter how it shows up in your life, youth mental health has been top of mind for many of us.
But mental health is such a vast and heavy topic, it can make understanding the mental health of the youth that we serve feel overwhelming. You are not alone if you feel this way! As someone who finds comfort in data, this is one of those situations where it can really come in handy. Data about youth mental health, while heavy, can give us a second to take a breath, take in information, and think, “Okay. Are some of these findings reflected in my experience? What’s next?”
So, what’s the data telling us?
First, we are seeing that mental health issues among young people have been steadily increasing for the past decade.
In a CDC study from 2019, 37% of high school students said they had experienced such persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities. About 1 in 6 students from the same study reported making a suicide plan in the past year.
We are also seeing that while mental health issues were on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic exacerbated the stressors that young people were already feeling.
A 2021 study from JAMA Pediatrics reported that worldwide:
And a comparison of these findings to pre-pandemic data suggests that youth mental health challenges during the pandemic have doubled, especially for older adolescents and girls.
But the rise in mental health challenges during the pandemic is not exclusive to teens. In a 2021 National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment study, parents also reported increased social and emotional difficulties (e.g., hyperactivity, conflicts with peers) in their young children.
Club professionals, too, are sharing an increase in both internalized (e.g., social withdrawal, feelings of sadness or loneliness) and externalized (e.g., acting out) behavioral issues among youth. To pull another quote from Justin Clark’s post, “You’ve probably experienced too what many of us in the Movement have been talking about over in the BGCA Youth Development Professionals group on Facebook. Cranky members. Heightened behavior issues. Lack of engagement.”
You may be thinking, “So we’re seeing that there’s an increase in mental health issues in youth of all ages… But why?”
And the truth is, we’re still learning. But scientists have several hypotheses that can help explain these trends, including (but not limited to):
- Young people have become more willing to openly discuss mental health conerns
- Limited access to mental health care
- Health risk behaviors (like alcohol and drug use)
- Varying social stressors (including the 2008 financial crisis, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence, and climate change)
- An increase in academic pressure
- Increased use of digital media
It’s possible that the answer lies somewhere in the combination of all or some of these, or in something else that has not been researched yet. And I hear you (or am pretending that I can hear your thoughts and this is what you’re thinking), I also wish that we could have a real, concrete answer to the why.
But we do know that there are things we can do to support our young people in this space.
I don’t know about you, but this gif is a pretty accurate representation of my brain after taking in this information. And while it is certainly time to talk about, understand, and support youth mental health, it’s important to remember that, as a youth development professional, you are already doing this through your work!
So many factors can influence youth mental health, from genes and brain chemistry on an individual level, to family, community, environment, and society as whole. Clubs are a protective and preventative factor in the community, so it bears repeating, Clubs (you!) are already doing the work.
One piece of incredible news is that there is nothing that says that you have to do this work alone (not even in the data, I checked)!
In fact, many of the things you and your Club or Youth Center can do to support the mental health of young people can be done together, such as:
- Supporting families. We can’t address youth mental health and well-being without this. Check out the Family Engagement Toolkit to learn more about how to proactively build partnerships in this space.
- Adopting trauma-informed practices to more effectively support both the young people impacted by trauma, and all of the people that your organization serves (including you and families, it all connects!)! If you want to see if some of what you’re already doing in your Club is trauma-informed, check out this resource on Trauma-Informed Practices in Your Club.
- Building youth social-emotional skills through programming like SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness or the Emotional Wellness Teen Expansion Pack. Or, take a look at the Behavior Support Toolkit for some additional support around youth behaviors.
And if you want some additional support in spotting, talking about, and supporting the mental health of the young people you serve, I highly recommend reading any of the blog posts under the Kids & Mental Health tag here on the ClubX Blog, which include advice on how to initiate meaningful conversations about mental health with youth and warning signs that a young person may need some extra support.
Thank you for sticking with me on this mental health data journey. You’re doing amazing work, you’re trying your best, you’re making a difference. Please take care of yourself, too, you deserve it.
About Polina Aleshina
Polina is Director of Research and Evaluation, and aims to use data to both learn from staff and youth, and to support the Club experience. For fun, she loves to spend time outdoors, play video and board games with her husband (and three cats), and take in too much true crime content.