We see a future where young people lead a balanced and fun lifestyle, where they can navigate modern life and are supported in realizing their unique potential.
A Vision for Happy and Healthy Youth in the U.S.
We see a future where all young people are empowered to lead a balanced and enjoyable lifestyle. We are committed to supporting our youth with the resources they need to navigate modern life and realize their unique potential. It is essential that we address urgent mental health issues, transform healthcare infrastructure, drive inclusive innovation and cultivate community connectedness for youth in the U.S. and beyond.
This LIGHT CoCreative Point of View will explore the complex challenges and intersectionality of youth mental health in the U.S. Our intention is to inspire awareness and positive change. We hope that the problem definition, systemic solutions, helpful resources, and ecosystem leaders that we have identified will refresh your imagination and vision for our future generation.
Problem Story: Why Am I Crying?
“During the COVID-19 lockdown, I started to feel very anxious. Often I would cry and wouldn’t even know the reason why I was crying. I told my parents that I want to opt for therapy. My parents have always been aware about mental health issues because my Mom has had OCD and depression. They agreed and supported me.…
By January 2021, I began to heal and I came out stronger. Instead of victimizing my struggle with anxiety, I felt like a badass for smiling, talking, studying and doing the same things that any other person would do, even with such a turmoil in my head.” -Manvi Tiwari
When Manvi bravely published her full story in an inspiring ADAA (Anxiety & Depression Association of America) article, she began to receive direct messages from friends who resonated with her experience. Many shared that professional help is not an option for them because their family does not believe in mental health issues. Her reflection and advocacy is an incredible example of change leadership to normalize mental health, break stigmas, and promote accessible mental health care for all.
Youth mental health was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, but concerns for the well-being of young people in the United States began much earlier. In 2018, it was estimated that at least one in every six children between the ages of 6 and 17 across the U.S. had experienced mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. This represents nearly 8 million young people with a treatable mental health condition (122). In 2020, suicide quickly became the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 (72, 117). Mental health is no longer just an issue for a subset of families and therapists – it is a national issue. As a society, we have a duty to solve for the wellbeing of our youth. They are the future and there are clear, actionable solutions that we can take to support the millions of young Americans who are currently impacted by our mental health crisis.
Reframing The Youth Mental Health Problem
To establish a shared understanding and form collaborative solutions, we have explored nearly a dozen critical factors that contribute to the state of youth mental health in the United States. These problem areas include nutrition, medicinal side effects, social media and screen time, bullying, cultural stigmas, education, fractured care systems, gun violence, substance abuse, and the diverse youth mental health spectrum.
Given the sensitive and potentially triggering nature of this content, we are placing an opt-in button below to deep-dive into the problem areas. Please feel free to continue into the Solution, Resourcesand Ecosystem Leader sections of this POV.
Diet and nutrition are inextricably related to long-term mental and physical health. The Standard American Diet is high in processed sugars and carbs and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, thus lacking the nutrients required for normal body function. Contemporary research highlights the gut-brain communication pathway and emphasizes that food directly impacts brain activity and mood (24, 47, 82).
Access to nutrient-rich foods is also determined by location, income, education, and marketing and varies across the US. In 2022 food prices in the US rose more than 10%, and pandemic aid programs like universal school lunches and the expanded child tax credit ended amid volatile gas and rising food prices. As a result, nearly one in four families experienced food insecurity last year. Increases in food insecurity coupled with a nutrient-poor diet are having adverse long-term health effects (65, 68, 81).
Right alongside good eating habits is the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle for young Americans. A study by University of Georgia researchers in Athens found that 75% of U.S. high-school students do not meet daily physical activity levels. Physical activity has many clear mental health benefits including improved brain health and cognitive function, a reduced risk of depression, and improved sleep (130, 131).
Negative Medicinal Side Effects
Around one in twelve U.S. children (under 18) are on psychiatric drugs, including more than one percent of preschoolers (89). Common mood medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Prozac can damage nerve cells and cause depression. Opioids are still frequently prescribed to teens, and at least 25% of teen girls use hormone-based contraceptives (14, 56).
Pharmaceutical companies are known to prioritize the marketing and sales of their drugs and incentivize practitioners to over-prescribe their medications. Many clinical trials do not assess long-term side effects or how treatments affect brain development and hormone cycles. Studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry also may be biased toward positive results despite the inadequate assessment of limitations and long-term adverse effects (71, 100, 125).
Heavy metals and manufactured chemicals that affect body function and development are found in a multitude of items we are exposed to and use every day like drinking water, soil, food, food packaging, and household cleaners. These substances can accumulate in the body over time and lead to a number of mental and physical health conditions. Consumer protection agencies, like the FDA, play a critical role in regulating public knowledge and exposure to such harmful compounds. However, gaps in FDA lists of regulated substances allow for continued use of harmful additives without consumer knowledge or consent. The complex nature of chemical interactions and difficulty of long-term testing contribute to these gaps in information and protection (26, 74).
Spectrum of Youth Mental Health
Imagine navigating a world that was not built for you, where lights, sounds, textures, and social interactions can create physical pain in your body. Between 15 to 20% of youth in the United States are neurodivergent and are at increased risk for challenges with their mental health due to bullying, social communication barriers, and sensory processing differences.
Youth mental health is a broad spectrum that includes everything from emotional states to neurological conditions. Feelings of anxiety and depression are normal during adolescence. However, if such feelings persist and impact daily life, it may indicate a more serious mental health disorder. Due to neurodevelopmental differences, neurodiverse youth experience mental health disorders significantly more often than their non-neurodiverse peers (10, 25). As such, the neurodiversity movement advocates for personalized mental health care focused on individual strengths and challenges.
Individuals with learning disabilities and other neurobiological differences often struggle with transitions to adulthood and independence. Although many schools employ transition programs for students, accommodation and accessibility in the workplace and public spaces is severely lacking (103, 105).
Social Media and Screen Time
Excessive screen time has been linked to various physical and mental health problems. Without supportive and meaningful relationships, young people can quickly feel isolated and lonely (11, 48). Having a purpose for plugging in and balancing screen time with “green time” can help mitigate adverse effects. However, youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately affected by excessive screen time due to a lack of safe green spaces (98, 128).
Digital spaces are simply where youth spend most of their time. Approximately 80% of young people use social media to connect with friends and family (13). Despite idealistic developers across big tech, the number of safe online environments where youth can truly experiment and build social, emotional, and mental skills is incredibly low. A lack of physical presence and shared experiences makes it difficult to cultivate in-depth trusting relationships.
More time on social media also clearly increases the risk of cyberbullying, especially for LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse, and disabled youth who are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidality (12, 98). Social media and screen time for teens needs to be reduced.
At least one of every four kids in the United States has experienced bullying. The polarization, exclusivity and competition in our culture seems to reinforce toxic behavior at a young age in the U.S. Children and youth who are bullied, especially over long periods, often experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse, and disabled youth are more frequently bullied and, therefore, more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and tendencies (17, 61).
Mental health is understood differently across cultures and faiths. In some cases, faith-based nuances create feelings of shame and isolation and keep youth from seeking care. Inclusive outreach and education can help reduce such stigmas and promote access to mental health care (97).
Around 70% of children who receive mental health support in the U.S. access it through their schools. However, just over half of U.S. schools provide mental health assessments, and fewer offer treatment. Inadequate funding and access to licensed providers are two of the most significant limiting factors (86).
85% of young people (95% of LGBTQIA+ youth) use social media as a source for information about mental health issues. However, online material is difficult to verify, and short-form content doesn’t always give enough context for discussing complex issues like mental health. Knowledge institutions also remain poorly engaged in youth-centered social media despite TikTok being used for a range of public health purposes (6, 55, 69).
Fractured Care Systems
More than 150 million people in the U.S. live in areas with a shortage of mental health care providers. Similarly, around 18 million people cannot afford necessary prescriptions (85, 122). Rural and low socioeconomic areas are disproportionately affected by these access barriers. Despite these disparities, mental health care services are regularly underfunded. Online treatment platforms increase accessibility but are limited by legal, ethical, and observational barriers.
Mental health is only one of numerous sectors of the U.S. care system. Healthcare in the U.S. is deeply fragmented, which makes holistic individual care almost impossible. Researchers have been advocating integrated, collaborative care for decades, and frameworks for holistic, life-long care systems do exist once we break down the many silos across our system (9, 128).
Mass shootings in the U.S. have increased more than 3000% since 2004 when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired. In 2022 there were more than 300 school shootings in the US - the highest number ever recorded. Today firearms are the second most common method of youth suicide, and more than 350,000 children have experienced a school shooting since Columbine. Entire communities across the U.S. are experiencing a collective sense of trauma and grief that can last a lifetime, especially without proper care. Gun violence in any form ripples through a community and leaves survivors, witnesses, family members, and friends traumatized and angry. (30, 34, 70, 73).
Research shows that lenient firearm legislation increases gun-related suicides and homicides, while strict firearm laws have the opposite effect. Despite this, less than half of U.S. states require universal background checks, and many continue to pass more relaxed gun laws (17). Youth and parents across the U.S. are calling for political reforms to support public safety and stricter firearm laws. In 2022, congress passed the first gun control bill in over twenty-five years. The bill calls for enhanced background checks and provides funding for mental health programs and school security. Although the bill had good public approval, dissatisfaction with gun laws hit a new high in 2023 (16, 77).
In 2019, about 17% of adolescents and 38% of young adults reported using illicit drugs. Those numbers significantly decreased in 2021 and remained low in 2022 (3). However, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, is frequently added to counterfeit prescription pills, which are widely available and easy to purchase. Consequently, fentanyl-involved youth fatalities increased by over three hundred percent from 2019 to 2021. Indigenous youth experienced the highest number of overdose deaths in 2021 and represent a particularly vulnerable group (16, 77, 114).
A Call for Positive Change
Addressing the youth mental health crisis in the United States is critical to rebuild communities and ensure proper care and support for our future leaders. Building awareness and understanding around mental health can facilitate collaborative relationships between youth leaders, local officials, nonprofits and corporations. This will elevate young voices, promote inclusion and enable solutions that effectively address the needs of young people.
Reimagining systems of care and education in the U.S. will not only impact mental health, but create jobs, lower healthcare costs, and facilitate novel solutions to global issues. Due to the complexity of youth mental health, solutions must consider the interests of many stakeholders including historically marginalized communities, and be able to adapt to our increasingly fast-paced society.
Exploring Systemic Solutions
Although the challenge of youth mental health is daunting, many solutions are already being implemented. Some states, like California, have increased investment in restructuring mental health services. Others are passing legislation to reinstate universal school lunches and school-based mental health care. Inclusive digital spaces are being created, and integrated care options are taking root nationwide.
In this section, we identify some of the solutions that we are committed to growing and accelerating at LIGHT CoCreative:
Back to Nature
It’s no surprise that getting our youth back to nature is one of our easiest and fastest solutions. Spending time in nature can reduce stress, boost creativity, improve sleep quality, and positively impact mood. Our opportunity is finding ways to make outside spaces more accessible to young people, which also mitigates the harmful effects of screen time and encourages physical activity.
Outdoor educational organizations like Outward Bound and 1000 Hours Outside use nature to teach creativity, challenge self-doubt, and help people playfully reconnect with nature. Promoting eco-tour field trips as part of public school programming can provide more access to outdoor zoos and nature especially for low-income families who may not be able to afford travel. Youth and parents can also advocate locally for public green spaces like urban forests and community gardens or volunteer at local parks to ensure outdoor time.
We can look to both governments and local communities to address poor nutrition and food insecurity. States, including California, Colorado, and Vermont, have passed universal free school meal bills, and at least twenty-one other states are considering free school meal legislation. Community-driven food initiatives like CULTIVATE focus on healthy food accessibility and education for underserved communities. Such projects can increase access to fresh, healthy foods, disseminate information about the medicinal uses of food, and create a stronger sense of connectedness with our food and local communities.
To address social media safety, online ecosystems need to prioritize their users' mental and physical needs. Digital spaces should focus on fostering positive relationships, sharing balanced content, and providing accessible resources. Organizations like the Center for Humane Technology are helping to realign technology in service of humanity and the youth’s best interests.
Emerging technologies will have the opportunity to fulfill young people's needs for connection while leveraging their creativity to produce safe digital ecosystems where they can build social, emotional, and mental skills. Innovative online leaders such as Headstream and Q Chat Space are paving the way for digital well-being by meeting youth where they are (in digital spaces) and empowering them to create their own ecosystems.
To enable youth access to evidence-based mental health information, knowledge institutions have an opportunity to participate in youth-centered social media platforms and campaigns. Incentivization can help accelerate this participation – incentives can include funding via sponsorship and grants or online recognition and visibility.
Knowledge institutions can also partner with youth and receive training and support to navigate campaigns and digital spaces effectively. Encouraging industries to produce appropriate, accessible content is key. Governments can enforce accessibility regulations like the ADA and incentivize businesses to invest in these initiatives with grants and tax breaks.
Parents, guardians, caretakers, and youth should encourage open communication about digital technologies and come up with realistic plans to mitigate risks. School-based education programs, support groups, and online resources can help families navigate digital spaces and grow communities of safety and trust.
A Continuum of Care
Integrated healthcare strategies lay the foundation for a care continuum where patients receive care that evolves with the person over their lifetime. Care continuums emphasize preventative measures and lifestyle changes instead of reactive care. Naturopathic medicine exemplifies preventive measures that support the body’s ability to heal itself. These practices help maintain long-term health and well-being, reducing healthcare costs and improving treatment outcomes.
Pediatric teletherapy platforms like Healthy Young Minds are increasing access to care beyond geographic barriers. These platforms enable professionals to collaborate across services to create holistic and individualized treatment strategies. Integrated healthcare models across the US emphasize mental health screenings and treatments as integral to primary care visits. This assures youth mental health is periodically assessed and supports cross-disciplinary work and individualized treatment.
Investing in alternative evidence-based treatments for mental health is vital to minimize the adverse side effects of psychiatric medication. Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice, has shown potential in reducing anxiety, depression, and stress in young people by restoring biochemical balances in the body. Mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises promote self-awareness and emotion regulation, thereby teaching young people the skills they need to navigate emotions and day-to-day life.
To incentivize further development of alternative treatments, public and private organizations must partner to fund continued research and clinical trials. The intersection of ancient practices and western medicine is truly fascinating. Cross-sector collaborations will drive the development of novel regulatory frameworks that ensure safe, in-depth investigation and maintain rules and costs for potential investors within this space.
Pharmaceutical companies also have an obligation to evolve with our healthcare systems and refocus their value chain to prioritize patient safety, transparency, and ethical behavior. Similarly, consumer protection agencies such as the FDA should be incentivised to expand regulatory investigation with a specific focus on environmental compounds linked to poor mental and physical health.
Education, Activities and Mentorship
Schools are the foundation of youth learning and development. Empowering teachers with the skills and resources they need to educate both parents and students around mental health is essential. We can expand after-school programming within our education system and invest in organizations such as Boys & Girls Club and AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) to provide more safe spaces, positive role models, physical activities and coaching at scale. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) programs are a great way to engage a diverse range of students and cultivate purpose as students explore life paths as well.
Faith circles also maintain strong bonds of trust and community, which can provide comfort, education and support for young people. Faith-based leaders can mitigate cultural stigmas and emphasize the power of connectedness to address mental health issues through education and compassion. Toolkits and guides for connectedness in faith and community settings are available here.
We see a major opportunity in shaping a more robust ecosystem of teachers, mentors, coaches, role models and community leaders who can support parents and children on their journey with mental health in many different contexts.
On the note of education, policies supporting school-based mental health centers are critical to minimize the treatment gap. Students are ten times more likely to seek care for mental health or substance abuse if they have access to school-based mental health services. In 2022, Delaware filed three mental health bills to incorporate social workers, counselors, and psychologists in schools across the state. These bills mark the most significant impact in legislation increasing the amount of school-based mental health providers and serve as a great model for replication.
To address gun violence in the U.S., governments and communities must work together and establish a transparent dialogue about the effects of firearm legislation. Improved data collection and analysis are needed to properly inform policymakers, and gun safety education programs can encourage responsible ownership. Community-based violence prevention and education programs are critical for raising awareness and providing mental health resources. Multi-stakeholder collaborations are key to secure funding for extensive mental health services, including regular screenings, suicide prevention programs, and crisis intervention teams. Youth-led organizations like Team Enough and Students Demand Action are organizing young people across the country and urging lawmakers to consider gun violence a public safety emergency. Galvanized by their personal experiences with gun violence, young leaders are demanding action and are prepared to replace representatives who fail to respond.
Youth-led climate education and action initiatives have had a huge global impact on policy in recent years. Young leaders understand the problems they are facing and know what needs to change. To support our youth in creating their future, we can increase the funding of youth initiatives and emphasize young people’s voices at every stage of policy making.
Corporations have a major opportunity to consider family mental health as part of their wellbeing and company culture initiatives. Benefits could include telehealth access, free counseling and mental health resources for the entire family. Flexible work arrangements and paid time off allow workers to actively care for mental health as well. Awareness programs are critical for reducing workplace stigmas, and teaching about signs and symptoms of mental conditions for those who are struggling. Investing in family mental health solutions will create supportive work environments and healthy family units which furthermore will reduce healthcare costs for corporations.
Normalization and Community
Mental and physical health are inextricably related, and they should both be understood as a normal part of life. By reducing the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, young people will have more opportunities to build meaningful relationships that provide a sense of belonging, inclusion and acceptance.
Within frameworks of normalization, we can adopt a strengths-based support model instead of being deficit-focused. There is so much potential and talent to unlock by empowering youth and celebrating their unique gifts in the community. Addressing the broad spectrum of youth mental health will require a major rethinking of accommodations and accessibility, but it is certainly possible and this inspired movement towards a more inclusive world is growing daily.
The Way Forward
There are many layers to the problem of youth mental health. Together we can empower young leaders, foster more cross-sector collaboration and accelerate solutions. We see an opportunity to increase funding for purpose-driven organizations and entrepreneurs who are leading the way to a brighter future for all. We will be spending the coming months at LIGHT CoCreative reaching out to values-aligned organizations and piloting new programs in each of the solution areas we identified.
We also encourage you to share this POV and any of the below Resources and Ecosystem Leaders that resonate with your community. Do you have questions, comments, ideas or a resource that you’d like us to add to the below lists? Please don’t hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explore a curated set of ventures, organizations and breakthrough technologies that are helping shape a better mental health future for all.
LEGO Education - A major leader for over 40 years with the belief that learning should be joyful. LEGO offers range of solutions that are designed not only to meet academic standards, but also inspire all students to see themselves as the change makers of tomorrow.
ENLIGHT - ENLIGHT aims to empower learners as globally engaged citizens by sharing resources, knowledge, and experience, serving as an example of space for students and teachers to create more meaningful relationships.
Healthy Young Minds - Teletherapy that is deeply engaging with personalized, research and results-driven, transparent, inclusive and accessible care for children or teens.
Geffen Academy Wellness Institute - Geffen Academy at UCLA will be offering in-person and virtual institutes for teachers to equip themselves with tools to teach about the foundations of mental health in a regular classroom setting.
Boys & Girls Club of America - Provides a world-class Club Experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who enters our doors, with all members on track to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, demonstrating good character and citizenship, and living a healthy lifestyle.
Big Brothers Big Sisters - Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers ("Bigs") and children ("Littles"), ages 5 through young adulthood in communities across the country. We develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people.
Headspace - Headspace is a mobile application that offers guided meditation, mindfulness techniques, and other resources to promote mental wellness and improve overall well-being.
Disney - Disney is a multinational entertainment conglomerate dedicated to creating inclusive and diverse content that promotes acceptance and empowers underrepresented voices, thereby inspiring a sense of pride and belonging within a more inclusive society.
Youth Mindfulness - Youth Mindfulness is an educational organization dedicated to empowering young people to cultivate their inner resources and enhance personal resilience, well-being and overall quality of life using programs and resources designed specifically for children and adolescents.
Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADDA) - ADAA’s promise is to raise awareness about the impact of mental health on physical health, to find new treatments, and one day prevent and cure anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders.
Right to Play - Right to Play is a global organization that uses the power of play to protect, educate, and empower children to rise above adversity and build essential life skills. They partner with more than 70 indigenous communities to elevate youth voices, strengthen local communities, and put reconciliation into action.
Inseparable - Inseparable is a mental health advocacy platform that aims to promote policies focused on getting people mental health services, ensuring schools have services that provide for the health and well-being of students, and stopping the criminalization of mental illnesses.
Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence - The Giffords Law Center works to prevent gun violence in the United States by advocating for stronger gun laws, educating the public, and providing legal assistance to policymakers and advocates.
New_Public - The New Public aims to transform government and public sector services by promoting innovative solutions, empowering leaders, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders.
Eye to Eye - Eye to Eye empowers and advocates for students with learning differences by providing mentoring programs, educational resources, and community support to improve their academic and social-emotional well-being.
Recornect - Recornect is a Dutch-based company that develops a therapeutic technology to help people with neurological disabilities, such as stroke or traumatic brain injury, reconnect with their environment and communicate more effectively.
Double Check - Double Check is a Swiss-based company that acts as a personalized holistic healthcare advisor, offering custom-designed services such as regular check-ups, analyzing and accompanying medical appointments, and providing access to leading clinicians and academic research facilities.
The Front Porch Forum - The Front Porch Forum serves as a business model prototype that enables neighbors to connect with each other, share information, and build stronger, more resilient communities
RespectAbility Faith and Inclusion: RespectAbility's Faith Inclusion and Belonging Program aims to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities by providing training to faith-based organizations/leaders, providing a platform to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of faith communities.
Active Minds K-12 Program - Active Minds focuses on mental health advocacy and education for young people. The K-12 Active Minds Program is a component of this organization that works specifically with schools and provides resources and guidance to help schools create a culture of mental health and wellness.
1.8 Billion Young People for Change - 1.8 Billion Young People for Change is a global youth-led movement that aims to mobilize and inspire young people to become agents of change in their communities and to advocate for a more sustainable and equitable future.
Headstream Innovation - Headstream Innovation is a national innovation program focused on creating a just and thriving digital economy that supports the wellbeing of young people as they grow up in challenging situations.
Science at Home by Carolina - Carolina offers a range of science kits that parents can comfortably use with their children. These at-home products spark curiosity and a deeper connection to science and nature.
Smithsonian’s YES! Teen Internship Program - The Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) internship is a career immersion and science communication program for youth between the ages of 14-19 that gives interns practical experience through a hands-on science internship with the Smithsonian.
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