While adults may think we know best when it comes to addressing youth mental health, it’s critical that we listen and co-design solutions that will actually meet their needs.
COVID-19 caught many of us off guard and unexpectedly dragged us into a world of unknowns, increasing feelings of anxiety, stress, worry, and fear. The pandemic affected us all in various ways, but one of the hardest hit populations was young people between the ages of 13 and 18.
A world alone
Overnight, places where young people find connections, support, and build relationships shifted. Schools transitioned to remote learning, while community events and programming abruptly ended or pivoted to virtual routines that gave them a sense of belonging and safety, such as seeing friends, neighbors, and mentors, were immediately disrupted. Stress, fatigue, and isolation mounted as young people adjusted to remote learning while juggling multiple responsibilities from caregiving to maintaining jobs to supporting their families.
Pre-COVID, the CDC reported increases in young people experiencing mental health issues. In 2019, more than 1 in 4 young people had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. One of the most important and sustaining protective factors for youth mental health is a sense of community–feelings of belonging and connectedness are essential for us all to thrive, but especially critical in early adolescence.
Although COVID-19 increased levels of grief, loss, fear, disconnection, and stress, it did not take away young people’s resilient spirit. Young people right in the middle of Gen Z have always been adaptive, resilient, and creative. Known as one of the most tech-savvy generations, young people turned to technology for connection, community, education, and a sense of belonging. Apps became a way to stay connected to family and friends; and continue to be used daily to foster a sense of belonging, connection, and even birth new platonic relationships.
Young people took their voices to the “virtual streets,” demanding that services being offered meet their individual needs. At Peer Health Exchange, we made it a priority to listen. Young people told us they wanted health education and services that are identity-affirming, youth-driven and have a vital community component. Gone were the days of TikTok content being focused solely on the latest dance trend. Instead, TikTok elevated youth mental health content, and health apps like selfsea.org were created in partnership with young people.
Adults are too often the gatekeepers of health information; we often—unconsciously or consciously—use our power to decide which health information is or isn’t accessible to young people. But youth are experts in their experiences, and when provided with the opportunity, they will articulate what they need and want. Youth and adult partnerships are more than eliciting ideas from young people; they require power-sharing in all areas of work, from idea to actualization.
The path ahead
Recent research conducted by Connected Learning Alliance is a testament to what young people have been telling us: they are actively searching for mental health resources through digital and tech-based platforms. However, most young people are not connecting or using mental health apps designed solely by adult professionals. What if adults and young people collaborated to address the growing mental health crisis that young people are experiencing? What if this collaboration truly shared power, and centered on elevating youth voice and strengthening their agency to make change?
In the words of one of our youth co-designers, David, “having a way for young people to have access to health information and resources is only right and just.” We see a world where youth and adults can work together to address health disparities and increase health equity. A world in which relationships with young people center on elevating their voices rather than judgment and fear of worst-case scenarios. How are you sharing power to address the needs of young people in ways that resonate with them?