How Employment Programs and Lawmakers Can Support Youth Mental Health
A new report released by the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) uses findings from a national survey to determine how youth employment programs and lawmakers can better support the mental health of young people. Identifying Gaps in Youth Employment Programs’ Capacity to Address Mental Health Needs, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides important insights into the state of young workers’ mental health as well as ways employment programs and policymakers can take action.
“The mental well-being of young adults is vital for career satisfaction, retention and growth,” says Rashaun Bennett, director of operations at the National Youth Employment Coalition.
Key Findings From the NYEC Survey
The report details several important survey findings:
- Youth are often unable to access mental health services. Most respondents indicated that less than half of the youth they work with can access mental health support in their community when they need it.
- Anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses among youth. Almost every respondent reported observing anxiety and depression among the young people they work with.
- Most programs do not have a process for screening or monitoring mental health. While 60% of respondents estimated that many of the youth they work with need mental health assistance, 64% indicated that they do not have a formal screening or monitoring process for program participants. In addition, 72% of respondents reported that they do not track whether participants need mental health services.
- Most employment programs do not have enough resources for staff mental health training. Of the 235 responses from organizations that provide direct services to youth, only 12% believed they had sufficient resources to provide quality mental health training for their staff.
In addition to the survey, the NYEC also conducted four focus groups made up of youth ages 16–26, enrolled in youth employment programs. The findings from these focus groups determined several factors have worsened the youth mental health crisis:
- stress related to school, finances, employment and COVID-19 pandemic-related isolation;
- cultural stigmas about mental illness and mental health services;
- inability to access mental health services;
- lack of adult support;
- inability to access transportation; and
- lack of funds to pay for mental health services.
Recommendations for Meeting Youth Mental Health Challenges
The report concludes with several recommendations for how youth employment providers and policymakers can actively incorporate awareness of mental health challenges into their work with young people:
- Address the root causes of the youth mental health crisis. These include discrimination, generational trauma that is passed from parents to their children, affordable housing and economic inequality.
- Be proactive about young people’s mental health. Programs should encourage mental health screenings for new participants and increase training for program staff so they can identify mental health warning signs among young people.
- Use new and existing legislation. Lawmakers must create new policies that increase the mental health services available to young people while using federal, state and local resources ― such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act ― to support youth enrolled in employment programs.
How the NYEC Survey Was Developed
The survey was developed in response to a 2021 advisory report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, which noted alarming trends in the mental health of young people that have only worsened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NYEC conducted the survey in 2022 and collected 563 responses from youth employment program practitioners across 49 states. The survey was designed to determine:
- the readiness of youth employment programs to respond to the youth mental health crisis;
- the mental health resources available to these programs;
- the processes and systems programs have in place to fight the crisis; and
- what assistance programs need to effectively manage the mental health of those they serve.
“Mental health is brought up as a priority issue by many of the youth and young adults we speak to in workforce development programs,” says Dina Emam, a program associate with the Casey Foundation’s Employment, Education and Training unit. “The data highlighted in the NYEC’s latest report shows how important it is for young people to have support available when they are facing challenges to their mental health, both in and out of the workplace. To succeed, program practitioners and advocates will need to collaborate and develop creative solutions that best support new workers navigating these challenges.”