Youth mental health conditions have grown dramatically over the past decade to become the leading cause of adverse health outcomes and disability in children. Unfortunately, behavioral health problems in children can have long-term implications for adulthood, as well.
Survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the years 2013 to 2019 shows that anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder were the most prevalent conditions for children ages 3 to 17 years old, affecting one in 11 children. In 2019, the survey also revealed that nearly 37% of high school children reported persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness in the year prior to the survey, with nearly 19% having seriously contemplated suicide.
The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated youth mental health issues, worsening anxiety and depression due to social isolation and other socioenvironmental challenges. Youth who were already at a higher risk for mental health difficulties — including historically marginalized racial and ethnic communities, those with disabilities, those who identify as gender marginalized communities, and those who are economically disadvantaged — have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic's impact.
The numbers are cause for concern, but optimism is building: healthcare leaders understand the gravity of the situation and, more encouraging, new solutions are available to help those in need.
A collective call-to-action to improve youth mental health
To respond to these emerging challenges, public health leaders, policymakers, health professionals, and other concerned stakeholders are enacting meaningful change. The U.S. Surgeon General, for example, declared protecting youth mental health a national priority. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Children's Hospital Association also jointly declared a national state of emergency in children's mental health based on research data covering the pandemic era.
Because of this collective attention, prevention and treatment strategies to ensure youth and their caregivers receive the care and support they need are gaining adoption. In addition, leaders’ focus is moving upstream, with efforts underway to address in pediatric clinical settings the systemic factors impacting youth mental health conditions. These factors include cost and affordability, fragmented care, long wait times, and a shortage of mental health providers. By focusing on overcoming barriers like these, healthcare leaders anticipate being able to reduce unnecessary utilization of the emergency department (ED), lower healthcare costs , and improve long-term outcomes, as data shows that a majority of EDs in the U.S. lack policies for youth mental health crises , which can worsen individuals’ recovery.
Healthcare systems, providers, and other public and private stakeholders are working collaboratively to scale these strategies. But how can they ensure long-term adoption and impact?
Imagine a sustainable approach for the whole person
Cultivating children’s and families’ mental health requires a multifaceted approach — one that addresses the root causes of youth mental health concerns proactively and also improves crisis care response. Behavioral health models can yield greater long-term benefits when they shift away from short-term management toward more cohesive, equitable solutions.
Carelon Behavioral Health has extensive experience developing evidence-based systems that are transforming behavioral health services delivery. Our core beliefs for care delivery are based on a whole-person approach, which unifies physical, behavioral, social, and economic influences impacting wellness.
For example, our Child, Young Adult, and Family Services (CYAFS) solution drives effective outcomes through a trauma-informed, resilience-focused system that provides youth and caregivers with:
- Resources, support, and services.
- The ability to take an active role in their own health and wellness.
- Education about suicide prevention and services that reduce suicidal ideation.
What’s possible with better collaboration?
Proactive behavioral health solutions take a prevention- and recovery-focused approach to supporting a child with mental health conditions. They leverage data-driven technologies, along with key collaborations with parents and caregivers, educators, mental health professionals, and other invested stakeholders to prioritize early identification of at-risk youth. This prevents the escalation and persistence of the short-term crisis care cycle. Collaboration also enables multidisciplinary care coordination for treatment and support, which yields lasting positive outcomes for an individual's whole health.
Proactive programs offered in the market today include:
- Coordinated family care and support that keeps families together and safe at home. Staff members help families develop a support plan that connects them to behavioral health resources and empowers them to advocate for their needs.
- Navigation assistance helplines that provide guidance when children need routine, urgent, and emergent support referrals to counselors in their network or low-cost providers if they're uninsured. Also available are community resources and information on affordable insurance.
- Population-specific care management that assist children with a diagnosis of an emotional, behavioral, or substance use disorder. Staff assess the needs of the child and family and develop an initial care plan to achieve their goals.
Proactive support is also critical for primary care physicians (PCPs) who take a whole health approach when delivering care to children and adolescents. This support can include providing consultation by board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrists to assist PCPs in managing youth behavioral health needs within their practice, reducing unnecessary ED visits.
The impact of speed and responsiveness
Prevention and early intervention approaches can stem acute crisis. However, responsive solutions are vital, as well. Responsive measures make it possible to avert further worsening of youth mental health leading to an ED visit.
Reactive solutions available today include:
- Virtual, 24/7 crisis centers that provide centralized access and triage points for youth and families in crisis. Their services include counseling and intervention for immediate de-escalation, assessment and levels of care identification, as well as assistance in developing a safety plan and post-crisis support.
- Coordinated intensive care that helps youth who are either at risk of mental health concerns or are in an out-of-home behavioral health treatment facility. These programs help families learn how to self-advocate and navigate the behavioral health systems to achieve better-quality outcomes.
- Crisis lines and mobile response that quickly connect youth and their households to trauma-informed specialists. Youth who often prefer phone, text, or chat options versus in-person care can reach out to 24/7 crisis lines. When necessary, a mobile crisis team can be dispatched or a higher level of care can be recommended, such as in-patient hospital services.
By better integrating proactive and responsive care, leaders have an opportunity to make the impact the healthcare system – and the society at large – desperately needs. Namely, they can ensure that mental well-being remains a national priority and foster a proactive, supportive environment conducive to children’s overall growth and development.