We have heard so much about everyone’s declining mental health – particularly our young people. In our effort to bring attention to this challenge, are we unintentionally doing more harm? In a recent opinion piece in Newsweek, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Andrew J. Fuligni, CEO of the Frameworks Institute and Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA argue just that.
Language is powerful, and we need to be using it to empower our youth, and ourselves, to encourage action and resolve challenges – not making the problem seem insurmountable. In the article, The Story We’re Telling About Youth Mental Health is Hurting Our Kids, the authors lay out four problems with our current narrative around the youth mental health crisis.
Addressing Concerns – Taking Action
Each of these points is valid, but is Erika’s Lighthouse following best practices and ensuring our youth are not left to simply feel overwhelmed?
1. The mental health crisis narrative “paralyzes us by focusing our attention on the problem’s immensity without helping us see what we can do to solve it.”
This challenge around the narrative is compounded since the mental health space is complicated, and conversations around mental health can seem scary. This isn’t new, but it is still very much a reality. And the challenging state of youth mental health right now does, in fact, seem particularly immense. Is there a way to overcome this?
Absolutely, without hesitation, the answer is yes. Erika’s Lighthouse believes we can change the narrative one school at a time. Through evidence-informed programs, peer-led initiatives, family education, and staff training every teen, educator, and family member can talk openly about mental health and reduce stigma.
2. “The crisis narrative advances already damaging stereotypes of young people as troubled teens, and adolescence… as an inevitably dangerous time. The crisis narrative’s unbalanced negativity, with its almost sole focus on suicide rates and violent behavior issues, occludes the way supporting positive development…is essential to build mental health.”Certainly. The continued focus on addressing mental health after a youth is experiencing illness is a continuation of the sick-care philosophy in our larger culture. And, while important to offer support and help to those students, we must be more proactive and take action upstream to stem the rising tide.Through meaningful and purposeful mental health education that teaches positive coping mechanisms, signs and symptoms, and help-seeking we can build a foundation of empathy and understanding in our communities. We can build-in good mental health practices, behaviors and values into our daily lives that nurture and support our development and mental health.3. “This crisis narrative may raise awareness of the issue, research demonstrates awareness isn’t enough and can backfire. More awareness of what is seen as insurmountable isn’t helpful.”In fact, awareness has frequently been shown to be generally ineffective in behavior change. Adding in negative language and hopelessness isn’t going to help. But, coupling awareness with education, awareness with action, awareness with skills-based activities, and awareness surrounded by a larger community of support can change the world, or at least the world of those young people.4. “The crisis story directs our attention to dealing with problems that are already happening. Youth mental health needs to be proactively built rather than retroactively repaired.”As I stated previously, an upstream approach is certainly needed – and we are offering that. But, we also cannot simply give up on the youth that are experiencing mental illness. We must promote inclusive school cultures that support connectedness, encourage help-seeking, promote good mental health, reduce stigma and normalize conversations around mental health. The Future We DeserveErika’s Lighthouse has always prided itself in identifying the hopeful aspects to positively address youth mental health challenges. Everyone deserves good mental health and no one should feel alone in their depression or mental illness. These two concepts are not ideologically opposed, but rather, are symmetrical. Our schools can and must address both to meaningfully impact every young person.According to the authors, “Our research tells us that to inspire action and change, we need to move from a narrative that depresses and disengages to one that provides an accurate and motivating sense of what’s possible.”“This new narrative is about balancing risk and opportunity. It’s about mental health as well as what challenges it. It’s about the role of agency and discovery in driving development. It’s about the need to change our policies and systems so young people live in places where they have opportunities to engage with communities, take healthy risks, and have relationships with peers, and adults. It’s about the support that all young people need, but only some receive.”Erika’s Lighthouse couldn’t agree more, and we will continue to be A Beacon of Hope for Adolescent Depression™ in school communities making that reality come true.