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Improving mental health care for youth

Anthony Barrueta
Anthony Barrueta
Senior Vice President, Government Relations, Kaiser Permanente

A discussion about prevention, models of care, technology, and school-based interventions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a youth mental health crisis. Young people are facing unique challenges as they transition back to in-person learning, confront added stressors in their home lives, and manage social isolation.

In September, I participated in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California that focused on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people. Award winning journalist Julia McEvoy facilitated the conversation highlighting the current mental health needs of young people, federal and state funding resources, and ways to improve access to and delivery of care. Panelists included Tom Insel, MD, of the Steinberg Institute; Amit Paley with the Trevor Project; Patrice Harris, MD, immediate past president of the American Medical Association; and Arthy Suresh, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and cofounder of the Mind Body Ambassador program.

Listening to the panel, I was struck by the speakers’ diverse perspectives and promising solutions. They highlighted many ways to rethink traditional models and improve mental health care, sharing several ideas that we can put into action now:

  • Increase prevention methods and support a public health approach to addressing mental health issues. We can do more to address childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in pediatric care, in schools, and in higher education. Public health aims to enable living of healthier lives, as well as detect, prevent, and respond to diseases. With these goals in mind, addressing mental health is central to supporting a healthy community.
  • Reframe our thinking about mental health care by moving away from a traditional model to one that meets the needs of the individual. According to Dr. Insel, we must “meet people when they need it and where they need it.” When it comes to young people, they should not have to wait for a diagnosis or go to a physician’s office to receive the necessary services and care. Too often children and their families get lost in a system that is not designed to efficiently meet their needs and provide help before an issue worsens.
  • Modernize how mental health care is delivered through technology and innovation to reach young people. Arthy Suresh shared her success in launching trauma-sensitive classrooms that integrate mental health into curriculum with a model that engages school leadership. When developing technology, it’s important to be intentional about your audience – consider how young people communicate and improve broadband availability and connectivity so that new tools can be accessed everywhere.
  • Build safe environments that remove stigma associated with receiving mental health care. Mr. Paley suggested that young people today are changing the conversation around mental health, especially around suicide prevention. The pandemic has made clear that having authentic conversations about mental health are important and something to embrace, not fear.

The pandemic shed new light on how mental health impacts young people. We can make the most of this moment to improve lives and how we deliver care. In California, we have a unique opportunity to leverage the $4.4 billion designated for the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative in Governor Newsom’s 2021-22 budget. One critical opportunity provided by this funding is to build and expand our workforce to better meet young people’s needs. Dr. Insel highlighted that our workforce needs to change to fit our demography and better relate to our communities. This funding provides us with a rare opportunity to think more creatively about who will make up ethe new workforce and what services they should provide to best support children and youth.

As the country reopens, American youth may have a long struggle ahead of them. One of the most important things we can do is to gather thoughtful people together to have conversations about mental health and explore how we can do better as a society. This conversation gave me hope for our young people to emerge from the pandemic stronger and better supported than before – it’s never been more important to prioritize mental health and wellbeing. If you’d like to learn more about this conversation, you can watch the full recording here.

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