What’s Happening with Youth Mental Health?

A few years ago I taught a session of yoga classes to teens from Northfield’s Arcadia Charter School. I moved them at a brisk pace, thinking that’s what high-energy teens needed. I was so wrong. I soon learned to keep the lights low, allow them to rest on their mats and introduce slow, meditative movements. They needed to de-stress from untold challenges.

This was years before the pandemic sent youth mental health and substance abuse into high gear. Last March, HealthFinders Collaborative reported more than 130 mental health appointments in Rice and Steele counties, 100 more than the year before. By the start of the last school year, the nonprofit had responded to the need by increasing a staff of one to nine mental health and substance abuse professionals.

Reasons for the rise in youth-specific mental health issues range from social media setting unrealistic expectations for looks and likes, to bullying, to a parent losing a job, to anxiety over global issues like climate change. And then there’s the availability of cheap drugs that even middle and elementary school students are using.

In 2022, 28% of ninth graders in Rice County reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless more half the days in the two weeks prior to being asked. Northfield Promise, led by Healthy Community Initiative, tracks students’ answers to the statement: “I often or always feel good about myself.” In 2022, 79% of fifth grade boys and 71% of fifth grade girls agreed with the statement. But by high school there was a huge change. Sixty-five percent of boys and, startlingly, only 46% of girls agreed with the statement. 

So, what can be done? I had a chance to hear from teens from Northfield Union of Youth not long ago. They impressed upon a group of adults that they need to feel safe to share what’s going on with them. If there is a requirement that what they say to a counselor about drug use, for example, is reported to authorities, no students will be seeking help. 

Having outside resources in schools makes this privacy possible, along with the ability to help students cope. The Faribault Schools have community rooms in schools where students can just hang out, rifle through donated clothing, maybe play e-sports or see a counselor in confidence. Northfield’s expanded community schools offer safe places for children and families after school, with wrap-around services including the Community Action Center’s food shelf, homework help, art projects and physical activities. But more mental health counselors are needed.

You’ve probably heard about the difficulty of hiring mental health and substance abuse prevention professionals. Outside the metro area, that difficulty is exacerbated. Adding to the challenge, is the need for culturally sensitive providers to work with our diverse youth. 

My hope is that we’re able to train counselors from within our community. And my hope is that we continue to collaborate to reach our youth. If you have the resources, the time and the will to contribute in some way, let me or another local nonprofit know. You never know how you might be able to help until you ask.