March 1, 2023
COVID-19, associated isolation and other related difficulties are commonly considered to be the most significant factors contributing to the increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and behaviors among teenagers. While this is a fact, it is also true that adolescents have been experiencing mental health challenges for years before the pandemic began. Youth throughout the nation are in a mental health crisis while another, closely related crisis exists: critical shortages in the behavioral healthcare workforce.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Population Affairs, nearly 50% of adolescents develop mental health disorders, which "are characterized by persistent symptoms that affect how a young person feels, thinks, and acts. Mental health disorders also can interfere with regular activities and daily functioning, such as relationships, schoolwork, sleeping, and eating."
CBS News recently shared that according to Mental Health America, more than 60% of children who have depression do not receive any treatment. "Pair that statistic with the fact that about 80% of the United States has a severe shortage of child psychiatrists, and the picture becomes clear: there is a growing mental health crisis in the United States and beyond," CBS Newsstated (Feb. 27, 2023).
"We are fortunate that New Jersey's state government leaders recognize the need to address the youth mental health crisis, as demonstrated by significant funding increases for services and the workforce that provides them in Governor Phil Murphy's proposed FY2024 Budget," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA). "There is a wealth of evidence and inspiring stories that demonstrate tremendous value and effectiveness of mental healthcare treatment and other support services."
For example, NJAMHAA's advocacy campaign, Diverse Faces: Partners in Care, highlights Favio who, after dropping out of high school due to severe depression, received life-changing support from NewBridge Services' Jobs Plus program. In addition to counseling to enable Favio to manage his depression, this program enabled him earn a high school diploma and enroll in college. Favio and his counselor Amy Sheppard, LCSW, share their story on video as part of this campaign.
"Treatment for substance use disorders, which commonly co-exist with mental illnesses, is equally impactful as mental health care. Unfortunately, though, stigma often prevents teens, as well as older individuals, from speaking up and seeking help for either of these health conditions," said Dr. Wentz, who also chairs the New Jersey Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma.
Education is essential to help eliminate and even prevent stigma by teaching individuals that mental health disorders and addictions are real illnesses, not personal failures. Such education must include the signs of these health conditions and strategies for preventing and mitigating them. Two resources for education are Attitudes In Reverse® (AIR®; www.air.ngo; 609-945-3200) and the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (https://sptsusa.org/; 732-410-7900). Mental healthcare and substance use treatment providers throughout the state offer services for teens, children, adults and families. NJAMHAA has a directory of its member providers on its website, www.njamhaa.org; the directory, which is searchable by city and county, can be accessed through the "About Us" menu.
Signs that adolescents may have depression include:
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy (e.g., sports, dancing, music)
- Low levels of energy and motivation (e.g., they may not want to go to school for extended periods of time.)
- Difficulty sleeping or eating
- Spending more time alone and avoiding social activities (e.g., not accepting any invitations to get together with friends or family members)
- Excessively exercising, dieting and/or binge eating
- Harming themselves
- Beginning or increasing use of alcohol, tobacco and/or other drugs
- Engaging in risky and/or destructive behavior
- Having thoughts of suicide
Signs of anxiety include:
- Feeling restless, wound up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Being irritable
- Having headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
"Recognizing these signs and discussing them with teens in a compassionate, nonjudgmental manner is essential for encouraging them to get evaluated by healthcare providers and, if deemed necessary, receive treatment," Dr. Wentz said. "Friends and family members should share their concerns when any of these signs are evident. Open conversations literally can save lives."
An additional prevention strategy is to establish and maintain protective factors. These include supportive relationships with families and friends; participation in group activities outside of school; religious or spiritual practices; physical exercise and healthy diet; hobbies, such as writing, and creating art and music.
If you are a teen and are experiencing mental health difficulties, contact the 2NDFLOOR youth helpline (www.2ndfloor.org and www.2ndfloor.org/espanol/; 888-222-2228). Individuals of any age can contact the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or using the chat feature at https://988lifeline.org/. To search for a mental healthcare and/or substance use treatment provider, visit www.njamhaa.org and access the member directory through the "About Us" menu.