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There Is No Time to Waste: Addressing America’s Youth Mental Health Crisis

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We have long known that America’s youth experience a range of mental health challenges. 

Jody Levison-Johnson, Ph.D., LCSW

President and CEO, Social Current

A long-standing champion for systems change, Jody’s career has crossed a variety of settings from private providers to state and local governments. She has led system reform efforts across the country with much of her work focused on cross-sector alignment to benefit children, youth, and families.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 will be diagnosed with a serious mental illness. NAMI also reports that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among young people. Public health officials are sounding the alarm, including U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued a public health advisory about the youth mental health crisis. 

This is unacceptable. The stressors facing our nation’s youth are complex. Social media has led to a rapid rise in isolation, cyberbullying, and self-criticism. In addition, societal traumas, such as racism, gun violence, and natural disasters, consistently take their toll on young people’s sense of safety, security, and certainty. 


Importance of intervention

If mental health issues go untreated, the impact can be significant, altering the life course for young people and their families. Studies from the National Conference of State Legislatures show as many as 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system and up to 80% of youth in foster care have significant mental health issues. 

What if these conditions had been identified and treated? Would the paths for these youth and their families have been different? 

The message is clear — we must prioritize access to a comprehensive, coordinated, upstream network of mental health services and supports, and this must be done in collaboration across all systems that interact with youth, including child welfare, education, juvenile justice, mental health, and primary care. 

These services must be community-based, trauma-informed, family-driven, youth-guided, culturally and linguistically competent, and available across a wide range of geographic locations. We must pay special attention to young people of color, who are disproportionately overrepresented in more restrictive settings and less likely to receive the treatment they need. 

Despite a focus on mental health for decades, we continue to see a youth mental health crisis of epic proportions. We must do more than sound the alarm — it’s time to take action. Our society must ensure that those interacting with children are aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, normalize the experience, and offer guidance on how to seek support. 

We must invest in supports that strengthen families and build protective factors against poverty and economic stress. We must continue to expand high-quality, community-based mental health services for youth and their families that ensure timely and appropriate access.

Services must be tailored to the unique needs of young people and their families. We must work to curtail and interrupt systemic racism and bias, which perpetuate health inequities. 

And we must advocate for policy shifts that will improve youth mental health, such as universal access to health insurance, coverage for mental health treatment, and concrete  economic supports and programs that prevent and address childhood trauma.

Building momentum

The good news is that mental health issues carry less stigma than they did three decades ago. The pandemic has helped us understand that there are times in which all families experience stress, and it is OK to seek help. 

We are also seeing historic investments in mental health care for youth, with federal dollars going toward community supports, school-based interventions, training, telehealth, and technical assistance to support the provision of behavioral healthcare in pediatric practices. These are just some of the important investments that must be sustained.


With the CDC reporting suicide rates among young people increasing by 57% over the past decade, the time is now. We simply have no time to waste.

About Social Current

Social Current is a national nonprofit whose mission is to advocate for and implement equitable solutions to society’s toughest challenges through collaboration, innovation, policy, and practice excellence. Social Current offers best practice COA Accreditation standards that help ensure quality mental health services are available through community-based organizations.

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