Young people throughout history have demonstrated the importance of elevating their voices to address pressing social issues. Their voices have raised concerns and inspired changes that have made our systems and communities better. The need for young people to be engaged in addressing mental health is no different.
Iowa is facing a mental health epidemic that we were navigating long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people nationally and in Iowa. About 20% of young people have mental health issues, but less than 20% receive needed services. When we look at the impact on BIPOC communities, the reality is even more alarming. For example, in 2020, Black and Latinx youth were 14% less likely to receive care for their depression. Additionally, suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts are rising for Black, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and Latinx young adults (ages 18-25). We are facing severe challenges that we can only solve if youth are present and leading solutions with adult decision-makers.
I've worked with youth, including BIPOC youth, through nonprofits for the past five years and witnessed the impacts of unmet mental health needs. BIPOC youth face two realities: One reality is where young people are leading conversations about mental health in their communities and asking for more mental health services, while also struggling to get the help they need. The other reality is that they might still be dealing with mental health stigma in their communities and have difficulty asking for help.
Through my work to address mental health in youth spaces, I've observed that we all have a role to play in our communities to improve young people's mental health and well-being. Whether you are a family member, a teacher, a coach, or a young person, your actions can have significant impact. Here are insights I’ve gained through my work with youth that can help ensure young people are at the center of mental health conversations you’re having and solutions you’re proposing as we work together to create systemic change and destigmatize mental health.
Decision-makers in our communities are increasingly saying that they want to hear from youth voices on issues like mental health. This is an excellent strategy, and there are things we can do to ensure success and authentic engagement. Hearing youth insights and being prepared to take action on their words are two different things. I often share with adults working with youth that it is critical to prepare and train adults who want to listen to youth, so they understand how to support young people in those situations. These actions require time and intention and building new habits.
For example, simple changes could look like inviting youth to meetings at times that are convenient for them, considering transportation needs to get there, and compensating youth for their time. Some actions require more time and intention, such as building the agenda in partnership with youth, creating community guidelines for meetings together, and discussing with youth what adults expect rather than just placing expectations on youth. These actions can't be one-time instances. Spend time thinking about how you can seek youth feedback, provide youth leadership opportunities, and meet youth where they are.
What does this look like in practice? Young people spend much of their time following strict timelines, rubrics, and tasks. It's a breath of fresh air to be in spaces that encourage their voices to be shared and where they know they can make decisions impacting their lives. When working with young people in the mental health space, adults must ensure we create partnerships by listening, learning, providing support, and challenging them when necessary. For example, provide key leadership roles or responsibilities for youth within a group or committee, and reflect on how to set up conversations for youth and adults to exchange ideas as peers.
I have presented to thousands of youth on mental health, self-care, and youth voice over the past couple of years, and the number one thing that young people enjoy is hearing my story about mental health. For many, they can see themselves reflected in the story, which provides a sense of hope that adults are sharing their experiences and the tools they used to help themselves.
As young people develop working partnerships with adults, they are also discovering how to balance many responsibilities, might be dealing with mental health issues, and still learning to ask for help. These are opportunities for adults to practice transformational relationship building. Young people will have moments when they haven't met their goals and think they have failed or missed the mark. At moments of stress or uncertainty, adults can show up to guide them, challenge them, and support them through those issues. It's also essential to identify the moments when we should pause the work, so young people can receive the care, reassurance, or break they might need. Allowing space for a break will strengthen the foundation of the relationship.
I've used these tools and insights to support the work of hundreds of youth across Iowa looking to create meaningful changes in their schools and communities to better support youth mental health. The results show just how valuable authentically engaging youth in creating solutions that impact them is. These efforts have resulted in youth-led mental health projects, such as school-wide mental health weeks, workshops for students and teachers, and advocacy for excused mental health days.
As you progress in your system-change work and explore how to infuse youth voice authentically, I encourage you to research, reflect, and connect with local organizations that engage and empower youth daily. Al Éxito demonstrates what youth engagement and partnership looks like through their various youth programs focused on leadership development, civic engagement, cultural identity, research, and youth-led action.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.