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Local View: Youths, system under strain
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Local View: Youths, system under strain

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U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued a groundbreaking advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health. Murthy cites the rise in youth mental health challenges over the past decade and points out the significant concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused for children, teens and young adults.

The pandemic has led to mental health challenges for youth and exacerbated the challenges for those already living with mental health concerns. Youth at even higher risk of mental health challenges include those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, youth of color, LGBTQIA+ youth, youth living in low-income families, immigrant youth and those in special populations such as in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems or youth who are missing from care or are homeless.

The report includes some startling data regarding the pervasiveness of mental health challenges for youth. In a study of 80,000 young people, their experience of depression has doubled to 25% and anxiety has doubled to 20%.

In another study from 2021, Murthy cites that emergency room visits for suicide attempts have increased 51% for female and 4% for male youth, compared with the same time period in 2019.

While the facts in this report are concerning, the surgeon general provides strategies that can help. The actions and tools he recommends call for a “whole-of-society effort” to educate, empower and promote access to high-quality mental healthcare with strategies for young people, family members and caregivers, schools, health-care organizations, media, community organizations, funders, employers and federal, state, local and tribal governments.

He also points out where more research is needed and the importance of prevention services. This report is an excellent resource for all of us who care about youth and their mental health and can be found at hhs.gov/surgeongeneral.

Locally, we are fortunate to have excellent mental health services in our community. This includes therapists from local nonprofits working in every Lincoln Public School this year. Quality mental health services are provided by many organizations, private practitioners, crisis response and emergency hospital-based services. But our system is currently strained due to a perfect storm of increased need and workforce issues.

At HopeSpoke, we have experienced an increase of 270% for individuals seeking outpatient therapy since March 2020, most of those under age 19. Our agency and others have open positions that remain unfilled.

With 10% of our positions vacant, responding to the demand is challenging across all of our programs. Providers have waiting lists of six months or longer or aren’t adding clients to their waiting lists. Fewer providers are accepting Medicaid, adding to the access issue.

How do we improve access? We have the lowest unemployment rate in the country, which has a negative impact on filling positions with quality candidates. The applicant pool has diminished, and candidates are selecting from multiple job offers at a record pace.

We need to prioritize the mental health needs of our youth by diminishing stigma, paying rates to providers that will attract quality candidates, eliminating red tape whenever possible and prioritizing prevention services.

The needs are great, and the committed behavioral workforce is weary given the events of the past 22 months. Mental health challenges are real, common, and treatable. Please continue to seek services and know that providers are doing their very best to accommodate your needs.

As we work together to meet the growing demand, we are acutely aware that lives depend on our success

Katie McLeese Stephenson is executive director of HopeSpoke. She lives in Lincoln.

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