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Putting an Intersectional Lens on Youth Mental Health

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Mental Health Awareness Month. Our society has come a long way since 1949 in its understanding and prioritization of mental health and well-being. Individuals are more willing to discuss their mental health and seek support than ever before, including prominent celebrities and athletes for whom such admissions had previously meant putting their careers at risk.

Today, young people are the most open and honest about their mental health. Their progressive stance diverges from mainstream media narratives that youth are in crisis. Instead of nuanced conversations that take into account the intersectional issues impacting the well-being of young people, headlines simply proclaim and promote a sense of hopelessness and despair. While it is indeed true that the mental health and well-being of young people have gotten worse, this simplistic narrative overlooks our interdependence in healing and intersectional understanding of why a crisis persists.

A multitude of systemic complexities play a role. It is important to make clear our collective understanding of how intertwined a variety of issues are with youth mental health and well-being so that we can co-create solutions with young people.

Housing and food insecurity lead to mental health challenges

Housing and food insecurity are inextricably linked to our well-being. Earlier this year, I attended the Biden-Harris Administration’s first-ever interagency Youth Policy Summit and in one small breakout session alone, three young people talked about their struggles with being unhoused while attending college.

According to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness in the United States, 700,000 of which are unaccompanied minors — meaning they are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. These estimates indicate that approximately one in 10 adults ages 18 to 25, and one in 30 youth ages 13 to 17 will experience homelessness each year.”

Food insecurity goes beyond the unhoused, of course. Millions of Americans do not know where their next meal will come from. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration noted that in 2021, “33.8 million people lived in food-insecure households and five million children lived in food-insecure households where children and adults experienced food insecurity. Prior research has shown that food insecurity is associated with psychological distress and other mental health outcomes, including depression … In addition, low-income individuals experiencing food insecurity were 3.6 and 3.5 times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression, respectively, compared to those who were food secure.”

Cultivating Possibilities Youth Policy Summit - Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Cultivating Possibilities Youth Policy Summit – Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Climate change is making us anxious

Climate change is recognized as a significant factor contributing to the anxiety of young people. As a stand-alone issue, it brings about great concern regarding an uncertain future, but climate is also quite interconnected with other social and economic inequities — from polluted water sources in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, to high asthma rates in Black communities.

As my colleague, Emma Bruehlman-Senecal, Ph.D. wrote last year, “Young people feel the effects of climate anxiety every day. They are bombarded with information about climate change, and its frightening implications for their future, at school, in the news, and online. And many youth, especially those in underserved communities, experience the acute effects of climate injustice on a daily basis.”

Seventy-nine percent of young people believe that climate change is real and caused mainly by human activity. Teachers are the top source of information for students about climate change, but New Jersey (in 2022) is the only state that requires that the topic be taught in all schools, across grade levels and subject areas.

Group of demonstrators on road, young people from different culture and race fight for climate change - Global warming and enviroment concept - Focus on banners

Group of young people from different culture and race fight for climate change

Attacks on our identities

The last two years have witnessed a relentless attack on the lived experiences and identities of young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people — especially those living at the intersection of multiple communities. School boards, state legislatures, and Governors across the country have moved to whitewash our nation’s history by emptying library shelves and drastically altering school curricula and reading lists. Hundreds of anti-trans bills have been introduced, blocking trans people’s right to health care and dignity. These efforts at erasing the histories and identities of young people — the most diverse generation our country has ever seen — deprive young people of our country’s multi-racial presence and impact youth mental health and well-being.

As psychologist and counselor, Dr. Allison Bashe told CBS News, “Banning any book can have a detrimental impact on a young person’s mental health when you cut off having the ability to have access to literature that features people who look like you, feel like you, and experience the world like you do.”

According to The Trevor Project’s 2023 survey, “nearly one in three LGBTQ+ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ+ policies and legislation. Nearly two in three LGBTQ+ young people said that hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ+ people at school made their mental health a lot worse.”

The student decides if the book he found is the right one for his research project.

Student chooses a book from a library shelf

Share power, give voice, and create space for young leaders

If we are to significantly address the intersectional and systemic barriers that are preventing young people from fully thriving, it is imperative that they are at the heart of the solutions. This isn’t to say we should kick the can down the road and leave it to young people to figure it out on their own. By contrast, we need to share power — political, financial, and organizational — with young people through intergenerational partnerships that empower all of us to co-create solutions to these intersectional challenges. We need to create space for young people to contribute their ideas and share their vision for the future through dialogue about the importance of community, purpose, identity, well-being, and belonging. Giving young people the agency to contribute to solutions that improve systems, policies, research, and practices will help young people to thrive.

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