Youth advocate calls for more openness on mental health issues
K-State Research & Extension
MANHATTAN – Teenagers who responded to a survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council said that more than 7 in 10 kids between the ages of 13-19 are struggling with their mental health.
Perhaps of equal concern: The same survey indicates that teens are feeling more pressured to hide their feelings, rather than talk to a supportive adult.
“It’s not unusual for young people to report that they’re feeling distressed, anxious or depressed, but I do think what’s unique and probably troublesome around the National 4-H Council report is that the young people thought they couldn’t talk about the feelings they had,” said Elaine Johannes, an extension 4-H Youth Development specialist at Kansas State University.
“They felt pressured to hide their feelings, to pretend they weren’t worried, and to deal with problems on their own. That’s unique.”
The National 4-H Council’s survey was conducted by The Harris Poll from May 4-14. There were 1,516 respondents; 230 of those were 4-H members, and 1,286 had never participated in 4-H.
Kansas 4-H state leader Wade Weber said the data indicate that 71 percent of the teens felt that they are misunderstood by an older person in their life; 67 percent said at times the pressure is too much for them to handle; and they are three times more likely to feel pressured to talk about their problems than they are to drink alcohol or do drugs.
“The National 4-H Council’s survey takes a temperature of what youth are talking about today,” Weber said. “I think it’s important to highlight those things because young people… are not finding ready-made pathways for them to talk about their problems with the adults who are very concerned about them. Those are the types of things that we are wanting to follow up on as a state 4-H program.”
Johannes said the current findings are very similar to a 2019 study of mental health of teens, conducted by the Pew Research Center. However, teens did report that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their sense of loneliness and made it more difficult to connect with their support systems.
Teens, she said, may be reacting to the perception that adults also are distressed. The Pew Research Center reported in May that 33 percent of Americans are experiencing greater psychological distress as a result of the global pandemic.
“I do think that is a factor in how the young people who responded to the (National 4-H Council) poll saying they were not comfortable talking about their own emotional health,” Johannes said. “I assume they are noticing that the adults probably don’t have the capacity to listen right now because we are struggling with our own emotional health.
“It’s this constellation of issues that really puts our young people at most risk, but also may make them more resilient.”
Other key findings from the National 4-H Council’s survey include:
- 71% of those surveyed say school work makes them feel anxious or depressed.
- 65% of those surveyed say uncertainty about the future makes them feel anxious or depressed.
- Approximately 45% say that they try to ignore their feelings or spend more time alone when they are dealing with mental health issues.
- 46% of teens reported social media as their most common outlet for learning about coping mechanisms for mental health and 43% follow or support someone on social media who openly talks about their mental health issues.
- 82% of teens are calling on America to talk more openly and honestly about mental health issues in this country.
- 79% of teens surveyed wish there was an inclusive environment or safe space for people in school to talk about mental health. 70% wish their school taught them more about mental health and coping mechanisms.
While the survey brought out some grim statistics, Weber said it’s important that adults hear the message and respond in positive ways, rather than try to shield their children from life’s realities. He notes that 65 percent of teens also reported that they want their family members to talk with them more about their mental health.
“Exercise some courage; exercise some humility to be able to say we’re in a challenging time right now, but it’s an opportunity to hear one another and work toward solutions together,” he said. “Doing so will help us develop resiliency as a family unit and as individuals. It’s important that young people believe that they can disclose their problems while knowing that there are support systems in their lives that want to help them navigate those in a way that includes healthy coping mechanisms and practices.”
For parents, that may mean re-framing the challenges they are facing, according to Johannes.
“Change the language you’re using and the focus in such a way that we are representing resilience,” she said. “You can model resilience and use words that represent growing stronger. For example, instead of talking about deficits, risks and limits, talk about opportunities for the young person to discover their identity, and the social and emotional health they are building during this time of challenge.”
Weber added: “One of the things I would encourage along the way is the ability to be patient, purposeful and persistent. Because you can’t just turn around and say to a young person, ‘Okay dad has 30 minutes, what’s going on?’ That’s usually not the recipe for authentic conversation and sharing.
“But if you can give that 30 minutes, be with them, try and connect into their world, see the world through their eyes. The ability to empathize – not necessarily solve their problems – is a key first step in helping that connection to form.”