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Afterschool field creates resources to help support the mental health of young people

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Afterschool field creates resources to help support the mental health of young people

With year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic now underway, mental health is recognized as one of the largest issues among youth today. The ways in which young people have suffered during the pandemic are heartbreaking - from increased anxiety and social isolation to coping with grief and loss. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the challenges facing youth and many policymakers and youth serving organizations are focusing efforts toward addressing the mental health crisis.

In late 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory to address the youth mental health crisis unfolding across the nation. While it’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges among youth, these issues have long been prevalent.

Mental health challenges have been the leading cause of poor life outcomes among youth for many years. Up to one in five children ages 3 to 17 in the US struggle with a mental health disorder. From 2009 to 2019, the number of high school students with persistent hopelessness rose to more than one in three students, a 40 percent increase. Suicide among ages 10-24 has increased by 57 percent as well, between 2007 and 2018.

Over the past two years, these challenges among the nation’s youth have become more prevalent and have been compounded by COVID related challenges. Young people have had to cope with the loss of in-person schooling and social activities, and many have struggled to access health care and social services. The pandemic has especially impacted communities who were vulnerable before the pandemic, such as youth with disabilities, racial minorities, and low-income youth.

As the pandemic continues to highlight the mental health crisis that America’s youth face, the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health outlines the following series of recommendations to address youth mental health:

  • Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.  
  • Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.  
  • Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care. 
  • Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings, and expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.  
  • Address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families, and caregivers.
  • Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly. This includes more research on the relationship between technology and youth mental health, and technology companies should be more transparent with data and algorithmic processes to enable this research.

On February 8, 2022, Surgeon General Murthy testified at a U.S. Senate Finance Committee Hearing on Protecting Mental Health where he reiterated his concerns for the mental wellbeing of young people and highlighted four of his advisory’s recommendations. Among those highlighted was the need to focus on prevention by investing in school and community-based programs that have been shown to improve the mental health and emotional well-being of children. 

Throughout the pandemic, research has consistently found that afterschool and summer programs have been stepping up to meet the needs of young people, including helping to support their overall health and wellbeing. In many instances, programs are receiving supports, such as tools and professional development opportunities, from their Statewide Afterschool Network to help them support the mental wellbeing of young people who attend their programs

In Georgia, mental health is being directly addressed in afterschool programs across the state. The Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network (GSAN) has released a Behavioral Health Toolkit for Afterschool Programs. Its purpose is not to diagnose metal health among youth, but to serve as a tool to help afterschool providers better understand mental health within their programs. Through the tools available, providers learn ways to see, observe, and recognize the ways that mental health can play out within a program. The toolkit offers an array of resources: key terms, social and emotional learning, understanding of mental disorders, and mental health crisis information.

The nonprofit Voices for Georgia’s Children is also working to amplify youth voices on the topic of mental health today. Their video series, Amplifying the Youth Voice, offers various first-hand accounts of mental health crises that youth have faced in their lives, and in recent years. In one section, students were asked (in May 2020) to share their life story and the challenges they face. Another section serves as a suicide prevention PSA, in which youth survivors who have attempted suicide share their stories dealing with depression and anxiety, while offering hope and support to at-risk youth. The final section are youth interviews speaking on state custody, suicide, health-related school absences, and anxiety disorders.

In states like Alaska and Wisconsin, the afterschool networks are partnering with other allies in the state to provide staff training in Mental Health First Aid and Question, Persuade, Refer. Mental Health First Aid is a course being used to educate afterschool providers on how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Question, Persuade, Refer is a course used to provide staff with innovative and practical suicide prevention training. Both training courses equip afterschool providers with the skills to address the ongoing youth mental health crisis.

Earlier this month, three statewide afterschool networks teamed up to offer a virtual event with a focus on supporting the mental health of afterschool professionals and youth. Design to Grow, hosted by the Colorado Afterschool Partnership, Montana Afterschool Alliance, and Wyoming Afterschool Alliance, was a two-day virtual event that brought together professionals and volunteers to learn how to support youth in developing communities of connection and well-being.

The pandemic has helped bring the importance of supporting mental wellbeing into clearer focus for many. Legislatures in states like Georgia and Washington have named 2022 as a year of mental health, and U.S. Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate are also turning their attention to mental wellbeing with multiple hearings scheduled and talk of new bills forthcoming. Hopefully this attention will bring some desperately needed resources to youth serving organizations, like afterschool and summer programs, that keep kids safe and healthy by helping them avoid risky behaviors and surrounding them with caring adults and engaging learning opportunities.

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