How Employment Programs and Lawmakers Can Support Youth Mental Health

Posted December 1, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

An unrecognizable white female teacher sits in the right portion of the frame. She's smiling at a boy who is obscured in the foreground. In the middle of the image, in focus, a Black teenage boy smiles and welcomes the student in the foreground.

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 1626, 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.”

Learn More About the Men­tal Health Chal­lenges Faced by Youth Across the Country

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