The World Needs to Know: A Message of Hope for Children’s Mental Health
Caroline Martin, PhD is a researcher, practitioner, and licensed child psychologist specializing in infant and early childhood mental health. She is a Research Specialist on the Impact & Practice team at ICS.
*Trigger warning: suicide*
“The world needs to know.”
That was 11-year-old Austin’s response when asked why he decided to share his personal mental health story on the national stage. Austin and his mother appeared on 60 Minutes to share their family journey as Austin–9 at the time–struggled with depression, isolation, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic. His advice for other children and teens struggling with their mental health: “If you are going through [it] by yourself, try to contact someone. Your friends. Your family.”
Austin is right. The world does need to know. Mental health problems among children and teens have risen dramatically over the past decade and have only intensified since the pandemic 1. Even among the nations’ youngest children, it is estimated that between 10-16% of children from birth to five experience a mental health condition 2,3. In fact, for young children whose mental health is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of their caregivers, the pandemic has created numerous challenges as families have faced increased isolation, economic stress, and their own mental health difficulties 2,4.
Critically, the worsening of children’s mental health has disproportionately impacted youth of color and other systemically marginalized communities, highlighting the ongoing and pervasive effects of discrimination, racism, and structurally entrenched inequities 5,6. For example, a recent national survey found that an astonishing 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in 2022, and rates were higher among LGBTQ+ youth of color compared to their white peers 6. It is no wonder that the U.S. Surgeon General referred to the current landscape of children’s mental health as the “defining public health crisis of our time” 7.
Austin’s story is one of many that I carry with me in my work as a child and adolescent psychologist. In 2020, I worked at a large children’s hospital that was flooded with demand for mental health services. The tone of our team meetings was somber as we discussed the two-week wait for an inpatient bed, or the nine-month wait for outpatient services. As a provider, these facts weighed on me. Though I tried to practice what I preached to families–“You have to take care of yourself to take care of others”–I found myself spending the precious five minutes between patient meetings making calls to other hospitals and community agencies in the area, desperately searching for treatment openings for the children and families we could not serve. Most often I was met with the same bleak news that was becoming our nation’s reality: services everywhere were full.
Yet, Austin’s story showcases another facet of the mental health crisis that the world needs to know: Hope. Hope for our youth and families that, with support, they can find their way to the other side of suffering. Hope that our communities can come together to address this crisis. I am inspired by those across the country working to find innovative solutions and effect systems change. But most of all, I am inspired by the children and teens in this country. Every day, young people are finding the courage to ask for help, creating their own networks of support for one another, and demonstrating a willingness, as Austin did, to use their voice on the national stage. We as adults must elevate their voices and ensure that young people are part of the solution.
These are the stories I look to for my own hope. I remember my 15-year-old patient struggling with the weight of his own depression, who found the courage to tell an adult about his friend’s suicidality. I remember the parents who met their 11-year-old child with compassion when he shared his desire to use different pronouns. I remember the educator who reached out for help in supporting her preschool classroom after multiple students had lost family members to the pandemic. I remember my colleagues–the nurses, physicians, social workers, child life specialists, and more–who stayed late, who listened, and who looked out for one another.
These stories, and so many others, bring me hope and remind me that it is our collective responsibility to address the youth mental health crisis. We must all do our part to ensure that mental health promotion is built into the bricks of every school, early learning center, clinic, hospital, community agency, and family culture. We must emphasize, advocate for, and fund equitable mental health prevention and intervention for children and youth of all ages and backgrounds.
Promoting Children’s Mental Health in Your Community
What does it look like to build mental health promotion into the bricks in your setting? Whether you are a parent, grandparent, neighbor, educator, health care provider, or community leader–consider how you build the foundation, structure, and roof of mental health and wellness in your community:
The foundation. Children thrive in the context of safe, responsive, and nurturing relationships. Do your part to create a culture of openness, vulnerability, and support that allows children to be their true and authentic selves, and to come to you when they are struggling.
The structure. Build the “frame” for mental health promotion in your setting by fostering emotion literacy and positive coping. Starting at a young age, introduce a wide variety of emotion words and help children connect emotion words to context (“You feel sad because you don’t get to see grandma today”). Promote acceptance of all emotions and provide support in learning to cope in healthy ways. Ensure children have access to positive mental health role models, both in the media and at home. Provide age-appropriate information on mental health topics using trusted resources such as kidshealth.org, childmind.org, zerotothree.org, and healthychildren.org.
The roof. In bad weather, the roof is critical to shielding us from the rain. Make sure that the children and caregivers in your life know their options for seeking professional mental health support in times of need. Do your part to advocate for mental health resources in your community. Most importantly, if you are worried about a child or teen in your life, ask the question directly: “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” This question can help save a life. For more resources on talking to children and teens about suicide and mental health treatment, check out: Trevor Project, 988lifeline.org, and Child Mind: what to do if you are worried about suicide.
Finally, remember, you have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. Let’s support one another to practice this important advice.
- Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (2022). 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report. AHRQ Pub. No. 22(23)-0030.
- Think Babies (2022). https://www.thinkbabies.org/policy-priorities-infant-and-early-childhood-mental-health/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023). Data and statistics on children’s mental health. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
- Kerker, B. D., Willheim, E., & Weis, J. R. (2023). The COVID-19 pandemic: implications for maternal mental health and early childhood development. American Journal of Health Promotion, 37(2), 265-269.
- Shim, R., Szilagyi, M., & Perrin, J. M. (2022). Epidemic rates of child and adolescent mental health disorders require an urgent response. Pediatrics, 149(5).
- The Trevor Project (2022). 2022 national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2022/