As my colleague walked in the front door of the LiveWell office, I could tell something was unusual about her demeanor.
Usually, she bounces in with Energizer Bunny-type intensity; but on this day, she was different.
She seemed downtrodden and stressed out. I walked over to greet her, smiled, and tentatively asked, “What’s wrong?”
Her response didn’t surprise me: “Mike, it’s just getting worse out there.”
As we continued our conversation in the conference room, our business meeting quickly turned into a support group session where two mental health professionals lamented about the state of our culture.
We quickly turned to a discussion about how much children and adolescents in particular are struggling.
The main focal point of our hour-long conversation was how we are struggling to manage the intensity of depression, anxiety and addictions that many of our kids are scheduling appointments for at our office.
The conclusion of our conversation confirmed my friend's first words an hour earlier: two clinicians with decades of experience are convinced that the mental health issues occurring, especially in children and adolescents, is increasing rapidly.
Here's how it's getting worse
For the record, this is not the only conversation I’ve had like this. I would say without hesitation that close to 100% of my closest colleagues in the field share the same opinion: the mental health issues faced by children and adolescents are at epidemic proportions, and adults must act decisively to protect our kids.
The mental health issues faced by our children transcend specific communities and are a national trend.
According to the CDC, from March 2020 to Oct. 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those ages 12 to 17 compared with 2019 emergency department visits.
From the beginning of the pandemic we have seen an incredible uptick in mental health crises for our youth.
This statistic doesn’t compare to the number of kids who struggle silently and fly under our radars.
These emergency room admissions include suicidal ideation, homicidal intent and severe depressive and anxious symptoms.
Certainly, for those of you who are parents, the effect of the pandemic is not lost on you.
Again, the data supports this.
Researchers at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago surveyed 1,000 parents around the country and found that 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, while 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to occur for their child.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the state of mental health in children and adolescents becomes crystal clear when you them directly.
A national survey of 3,300 high schoolers conducted in the spring of 2020 found close to a third of students felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual.
The pandemic's impact is no shocker
I have written about it numerous times over the past two years.
The farther we get into a post-pandemic culture, the more it seems like the stress and anxiety created by COVID-19 exacerbated a trend already well underway before the spring of 2020.
As evidence for this assertion, I point to a research article published in Oct. 2021 by George Barna entitled “Millennials in America.”
I recognize this study reached the public directly at the center phase of the pandemic.
However, it points to some long-standing character qualities of 18- to 24-year-olds that would have to pre-date the onset of the pandemic by how central these personality characteristics are to established moods and patterns that take years to develop.
For instance, Barna’s study showed that close to 75% of young adults feel as if they have no purpose or meaning in their life.
Two out of three admitted to avoiding interaction with someone if it was likely to produce conflict.
Of the nine cultural influencer categories tested, entities like business leaders and government officials, none of them were trusted by a majority of the young adults to “always or almost always tell the truth or do what is right.”
When we consider Barna's findings, resounding clarity begins to take hold. The acute mental health issues faced by our children and adolescents are merely a reflection of an underlying uncertainty about the things that matter most in life: relationships (who can I trust) and meaning (why am I here).
Who's at fault?
Before you continue reading, know that I come from a place of compassion, understanding and advocacy, and I am not here to judge any individual.
Typically, when I talk to other adults about these concerns, they mercilessly attack the children.
“These kids are crazy.”
“They have no respect.”
“They are all a bunch of weed-smoking hoodlums.”
Frankly, I find this attitude completely misdirected.
Our children are a reflection of what we, the adults, have taught them over the years about how to find meaning in life, identify who you can trust in relationships, and manage conflict and other challenging situations.
If we want to look for someone to blame for the state of our world, we need to look no further than the closest mirror.
May I remind you this is not a condemnation letter. This is a statement of dire need and concern for the future of our kids.
I say all of this to ignite a flame and motivate the adults to build a united front in which we all do better and guide our youth in what amounts to an incredibly uncertain time.
So what do we do if we’re ready to be a part of the solution and stand up and advocate for the mental health of our kids and our young adults?
If there’s anywhere we have failed culturally, it’s in teaching our kids how to find meaning and purpose in this life.
According to the Barna study, for the first time in our nation's history, only 1/3 of the young people he studied believe in a God who is active in our world.
We will skip the discussion of whether or not God exists for now and direct our focus to the gap in the lives of our young people.
Essentially, we have to help them find anchor points they can grasp onto in life that provide meaning and purpose apart from what they see on social media.
As it stands now, the only thing they are consistently exposed to that seems to teach meaning would be the amount of attention and exposure you get on social media.
As a group, they aren’t obsessed with doing things that make a difference in this world or finding peace and joy.
Instead, they’re witnesses to other young people who are gripped by appearances, how many likes clicked on a social media post, and how many material possessions they can show off to the world.
If we want to lead our kids toward a different future that isn't characterized by extreme doses of mental health crises, we must start by showing them how to find meaning and purpose in this world.
By the way: telling a young person how to find meaning and purpose is much different than showing them how to find meaning in purpose.
We must lead by example. So let’s start with the big questions and apply them personally.
- How do we find meaning?
- How do we wake up each day feeling and knowing that our day has significance and purpose?
- If we can’t answer those questions, how can we ever model those behaviors to the kids?
One of the most disturbing data points from the Barna study was the idea that our kids don’t trust us.
I’m not saying they don’t trust you or me personally, I’m saying kids believe adults have collectively failed.
Obviously, we can't all go back in time and create honest politicians and business leaders who act with character and integrity.
What can we do? Get excited, folks!
We can take personal responsibility to pursue character in our life every day.
We should all decide together that our "yes" will be "yes" and our "no" will be "no," and eliminate the business of being wishy-washy with our decisions.
One of the most powerful definitions of character is: who you are when no one is looking.
What would happen if we all chose to operate in this kind of character consistently?
Could we change the tide of our culture and put our kids in a position where they can trust us again?
Yes, and now we can no longer operate by hiding the ugly parts we don’t want people to see, but I just don’t think we should be afraid of that.
Let’s be open, honest and model character. Our kids are clearly craving this kind of trustworthy behavior.
One part of life that scares our young people is meaningful, authentic relationships.
It makes sense when you think about it. They are the first generation in history who are digital natives.
They grew up in a world where they could build a custom level of distance and their relationships through social media and even gaming online.
As we said earlier, the pandemic poured gasoline on the fire and put children in a position where they spent months and even years without dealing with the natural fears and anxieties surrounding face-to-face interactions, disappointing others and conflict.
The solution? Enable our kids to learn how to manage their emotions and normalize healthy conflict resolution.
Briefly, let’s revisit the modeling piece.
Your best strategy here? Familiarize yourself with healthy management of your emotions and conflict, especially as you interact with the children and adolescents you’re trying to influence.
If you lose your cool every time confrontation arises in your relationships, you aren’t exactly helping the kids see that there is a different way to problem solve.
Commit to having hard conversations and managing yourself and your emotions appropriately.
How we approach and navigate our daily lives can significantly impact our youth.
4) Help kids discover hope, help
The first three strategies we have outlined are designed to help address the underlying cultural issues that I believe are part of the catalyst of the young adult mental health crisis.
This fourth strategy is perhaps the most immediate need for kids at this moment.
Our children need adults to encourage, facilitate and normalize getting help for mental health issues.
On the heels of the pandemic, where almost everybody believes there is a massive decline in children's mental and emotional wellness, our kids need adults who will help them find help and foster hope in the healing.
Psychologists use the term "psychological first aid" to describe the idea that distress is normal after a traumatic event.
Our youths need some psychological first aid to help them process the aftermath of the COVID-19 disaster.
Rather than treat the psychological distress they’re experiencing as a major disorder, the focus here is to provide support and assistance with natural stress reactions and coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety.
Let’s not wait until our kids are in the emergency rooms becoming one of the statistics, let’s intervene early and get them to mental health professionals who can assist with getting them back on track.
We have unique programs for children and adolescents at LiveWell Behavioral Health that are designed specifically to help kids with this kind of psychological first aid alongside a group of other children who have developed and are being treated for diagnosable depression, anxiety and addiction.
Whether the treatment plan is a quick couple of therapy sessions to teach coping skills or an intensive program to deal with cutting, self-injury, suicidal thoughts or addiction, our therapists can help.
The research is clear, children who receive trauma-focused therapies are much less likely to develop chronic PTSD and other long-term issues.
It’s easy to read an article like this one and begin to personally beat ourselves up for what we did or didn’t do for the children.
I hope my point is obvious: this article is not to assign blame to anyone for a mental health issue that a child or adolescent you know might be experiencing.
Please don’t take the information discussed here and use it to shame yourself into thinking that somehow you are the catalyst for someone else’s struggle.
That’s just not true.
The point here is that we have failed culturally, and that collective failure is in no way, shape or form, an indictment of any of us for what we have or haven’t done.
Use the information here as motivation to believe that while it is indeed getting worse out there, there’s a path to health that we can all walk together toward a hope-filled future.
In the end, our hope is for our youth to no longer struggle with mental health issues the way they are now, and that as a group, they find a sense of meaning in life and trust in humanity.
If you’re struggling through a difficult situation, finding yourself in a challenging season, or feeling frustrated in a conflicted relationship, consider seeing a therapist who can help you process how you feel, identify what you need, and establish tangible goals for your growth. Our team at LiveWell Behavioral Health is ready to respond to your needs and provide you with meaningful and effective care. Give us a call at (321) 259-1662 or find us online at www.livewellbehavioralhealth.com. We’re here to help you get healthy, stay healthy, and live well!