Advocating for youth mental health

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental health disorder each year. Studies show half of all mental illness begins by age 14 and suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth between the ages of 12 and 18.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated a worsening crisis. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.

As part of the ongoing commitment to addressing youth mental health, UnitedHealthcare has invested more than $36 million over the past three years in strategic behavioral health philanthropic collaborations.

Most recently, UnitedHealthcare hosted a Youth Mental Health Virtual Forum – with the help of our Empowering Health grant partners – to discuss how to approach mental health solutions and areas of focus in advocating for youth mental health.

Social determinants of health: Children who lack access to nutritious food, stable housing or positive community spaces may be more likely to struggle with their mental health. Focusing on those factors, known as the social determinants of health, may lead to better mental health outcomes, including preventing mental illness.

Dr. Debra Katz, a senior national medical director for behavioral health at Optum, spoke during the forum about the importance of building youth resilience by strengthening the village that surrounds children to support their mental health. This village includes enhanced engagement with community partners, providing accessible solutions and support, having support for the caregivers and in the schools, as well as assuring support is delivered with cultural awareness and sensitivity.

We have to do a better job of screening for social determinants of health (SDOH) because they greatly impact the health and well-being of youth and the adults supporting them,” she said. “Studies have shown that a great predictor of health outcomes is what zip code you live in. For instance, if a person lives in a community which lacks affordable housing, has minimal access to nutritional fresh food (food desert), has an underfunded educational system, and in a community prone to witness violence, the health and safety of the youth and their family is severely compromised. To build youth resilience, it takes a village. Healthy communities and healthy youth work hand in hand.”

Integrated care coordination: Supporting youth and helping them access services by collaborating and coordinating across multiple organizations and systems to address potential gaps can help ensure a child’s full needs are met. 

“It is challenging for youth and families to navigate and coordinate all necessary supports in a community which may include the school, primary care, recreational centers, and religious organizations. We must create a system for easy navigation and coordination,” Dr. Katz said. “Having a centralized single point of contact whose role is to coordinate care and communication between and within community partners is essential to assuring the youth get timely, appropriate, and culturally relevant support. Building an environment where children can learn, thrive and socialize regardless of their race, socio-economic background and cultural identities is essential.”

Dr. Jamie Freeny, the director of the Center for School Behavioral Health with Mental Health America of Greater Houston, spoke about the importance of developing and implementing equitable practices and policies that promote the well-being of school-aged children.

“The incorporation of cultural relevance in academic and behavioral curricula sets children up for success,” she said. “For example, if they want to pursue a career as an astronaut, it’s important to give them a visual representation of what that could look like, making sure it's inclusive, respectful and representative of various race and ethnicities. This connects to the mental wellness of students, as it contributes to their sense of belonging, self-confidence and respect for others.”

Olivia Jefferson, the vice president of Social Responsibility for UnitedHealthcare, says supporting youth mental health is a community effort. Hosting events like this brings awareness to the needs of certain communities and helps reach a common goal of helping people live healthier lives.

“We often say that young people are our future, so we have a responsibility to invest our time and resources to support them,” Olivia said. “Building strong bonds and relationships with adults and friends at school, at home and in the community provides youth with a sense of connectedness – making vulnerable conversations less scary.”

For more information on supporting youth mental health, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. You can also visit the UnitedHealthcare website for additional resources and call our free Help Line at 1-866-527-3953.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.