Alarms are ringing about a youth mental health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings, attacks on LGBTQ+ youth, and a worsening climate crisis threaten the future of young people. All of this has dovetailed with an ever-growing pressure on students to achieve ever more at increasingly younger ages. From the CDC and the Surgeon General to teachers, psychologists and students themselves, the calls for better mental health programs to support youth are ubiquitous. But what would an effective response look like?
To answer this question, YouthTruth (an initiative of the Center for Effective Philanthropy) recently analyzed the answers of over 220,000 students to questions about their emotional and mental health, and the help available to them.
The eye-popping findings include that students at every secondary grade, six through 12, cite “depression, stress and anxiety” as the most prevalent obstacle to their learning. At the same time, the percentage of students who report feeling happy about their lives steadily drops from grade three (64 percent) through twelve (55 percent), evidence of a concerning happiness slide that diminishes the American student experience. Students’ qualitative sentiments add even more evidence to the national consensus that things have to change.
But, change how, in these chaotic times? How can funders respond in ways that are both effective and responsive to youth? Students themselves are adamant that they want a different kind of response, one that truly includes them in generating solutions.
What We Learned from Students
In response to the YouthTruth survey, students expressed a collective exasperation with the adult-driven response to the challenges confronting them. And many overtly reject being labeled by adults and the media as a “crisis generation.” Youth know that their house — actually our house — is on fire, and they implore adults to unlock the front door and invite them into the fight. The key to that door? As many students admonished, unlocking the power of youth agency requires that adults “talk to us first.”
Consider that less than a quarter of secondary students surveyed (22 percent of middle school students and 24 percent of high school students) report that in the last year they accessed a school counselor or psychologist when they were upset, stressed, or having a problem.
Why aren’t more students accessing the services they need? While funding more counselors is certainly necessary, students detail barriers to accessing the counselors they already have, including scheduling and misperceptions that high-achieving students don’t need support. Students also expressed widespread concern about privacy, “Counselors are known to be someone not to go to if you need help because somehow it ends up being your fault or when you’re told it will be confidential it’s not.”
Students also give low ratings to school programs intended to help them when they are having problems. Less than half of middle school students agree that their school has programs that help them (41 percent) and that percentage drops for high school students to a mere 36 percent.
Here again students — the actual end-users of these programs — are replete with important insights into why these programs do, and do not, work. Youth were particularly frustrated with adult-designed well-being classes that didn’t focus on students’ concerns. “ASK FOR STUDENT INPUT,” one twelfth grader wrote. “The fact that we don’t even get a say in what we want to discuss is frustrating. When you are implementing this type of program you want the participants to be excited or at least look forward to it, right?”
Youth are Experts on the Student Experience
Surely we can all agree with the student above. And yet we recently heard from a group of funders about a whole host of barriers to including youth in the fight to improve their own lives. These barriers include an “expertise” mindset among adults that crowds out youth insights, wary governing boards, and just not knowing how to access youth. Fortunately, there also seems to be a growing movement for philanthropy that is inclusive of youth, and many good ideas for how to get started were also proffered. Here are just five for you to consider:
- Require or encourage your youth-serving grantees to have youth-inclusive decision-making processes
- Support youth-serving grantees to access the tools and expertise to gather high quality youth input and feedback
- Model listening by getting youth feedback on your funding decisions
- Convene a youth advisory board to inform your grantmaking
- Consider age diversity in your grantmaking and devote some percentage of your grantmaking to organizations led by young adults
The youth mental health crisis will not be solved without the participation of youth. Youth are, after all, the real experts on the American student experience. As one student put it, “you can’t help the kids if you don’t know what the kids want.” And, to know that, you have to talk to them first.
Jennifer de Forest, Ed.D is director of organizational learning and communications at YouthTruth and Serena Meghani is a senior analyst at YouthTruth. YouthTruth is an initiative of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Follow them on Twitter at @Youth_Truth and find them on LinkedIn.