Youth mental health: Exploring the role digital tech has to play 

Mental health is a critically important aspect of healthcare, but as was the case with so much in healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on the need for explicit attention and resources to be devoted to addressing the crisis. This is particularly true when considering youth mental health.

Students’ mental health became a prominent topic of conversation amid pandemic school closures, as young people faced new challenges learning in lockdown. According to CDC data published last year, over one-third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing “poor mental health” during the pandemic, although before then, mental health had already worsened overall among high schoolers. 

The importance of youth mental health

While mental health is an essential aspect of overall wellbeing, it is often overlooked or stigmatized. It affects our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and can impact all aspects of a child’s trajectory in life. 

Some of the reasons to prioritize mental health for children, especially, include:

  1. Improved physical health: Mental and physical health are linked. Mental wellbeing can help prevent and manage chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, and individuals with good mental health are more likely to engage in physician-recommended behaviors such as exercise. 
  2. Enhanced relationships: As children grow, solid mental health helps them develop appropriate communication strategies and form meaningful connections with others.
  3. Increased productivity: Addressing mental health issues is critical for productivity at work and school, as they can impact concentration, stress management, and performance.
  4. Reduced risk of substance abuse: Individuals with good mental health are less likely to turn to substance abuse as a way of coping with stress or other mental health challenges.
  5. Improved quality of life: Mental health improvement can help youth find enjoyment in hobbies or extracurriculars, pursue their goals, and engage in their communities. 

Addressing the youth mental health crisis through digital engagement technology

Now more than ever, there is an urgent need to face the concerning mental health trends among kids and adolescents. One way to do so is through meeting kids where they already are: online. The use of digital technology can play a critical role in improving access to this care.

Here are some ways in which tech can help address our youth mental health crisis:

  1. Teletherapy: Like most telehealth options, virtual counseling is on the rise. With many practices offering HIPAA-compliant video conferencing, more individuals can receive mental health support from the comfort of their homes, which can be especially beneficial for children living in remote areas. Plus, online counseling can be more affordable than traditional in-person offerings, expanding its accessibility to those with limited financial resources.
  2. Apps for mental health: Many young people trust apps for tracking their moods and getting advice on coping strategies. Some apps offer peer support through chat rooms, and others offer virtual chat features with licensed professionals for a fee. 
  3. VR options: Virtual reality therapy is a relatively new technology, offering new inroads to exposure therapy in a safe environment. This tech uses immersive imagery to simulate real-life situations that trigger anxiety in a controlled environment, allowing individuals to gradually confront their fears.

While there are many options on the market, online safety — especially for children — should be top of mind. This is why identifying trusted apps facilitated by health care coaches and trained professionals is critical.

While digital treatment options can be helpful in addressing the youth mental health crisis, studies show the supply of licensed professionals has yet to meet the demand. In the under-18 population, eating disorder diagnoses have grown 107.4%, and the rates of depression have increased 44%. Reasons for a waning market of care professionals to meet these demands include an aging population of psychologists and uneven distributions in points of focus for care.

The government’s role in combating concerning youth mental health trends

Legislators in every level of local and federal offices have taken note of the youth mental health crisis, especially since the U.S. surgeon general released a public health advisory discussing the “urgent need to address a national youth crisis.”

In August of 2022, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued guidance on Medicaid’s Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment requirements for most Medicaid beneficiaries under 21, which includes examples of ways that Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funding can be used to offer behavioral health services to youth. 

Additional public programs are working to fill the need. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), for example, recently released their Strategic Framework for Addressing Youth Mental Health Disparities, which outlines plans to invest in scientific research targeting pediatric mental health issues. The federally funded Pediatric Mental Health Care Access (PMHCA) program also helps pediatric primary care providers conduct telehealth consults with mental health specialists in an effort to provide diagnoses, treatments, and referrals for children in crisis. 

The role organizations have to play in improving youth mental health

In tandem with digital technology and the government response, many organizations and nonprofits are working to address the issue. 

Some organizations and campaigns are using digital technology to do so, with work such as Apple’s ‘Mindfulness’ device feature, which includes guided meditations and breathing exercises to help users manage their mental health. During the pandemic, the FDA also approved the first-ever prescription video game for mental healthcare. 

Apps like Symple and Osmind, for example, allow users of all ages to track their symptoms and progress over time. Although used for a variety of issues, many therapists engage with these apps to work in tandem with their patients on mental health tracking. Get Well’s digital care management solution, GetWell Loop, offers a Youth 360 Loop designed to work with schools, parents, and mental health experts to help kids aged 12+ to build resilience and life skills. 

A few notable nonprofits using tech to address the crisis include:

The Trevor Project, which is a nonprofit providing specialized crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth in the United States. They operate a 24/7 crisis hotline that uses online chat technology and text messaging with trained counselors for support and resources around mental health issues.

Our Minds Matter is a nonprofit working to promote mental health awareness and education among high school and college students in the United States. They provide professional resources to support student-led resource groups in-person and online, helping students manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues and create a culture of compassion and understanding around mental health.

On Our Sleeves, another nonprofit, focuses on promoting children’s mental health awareness. They offer virtual toolkits and educational materials for parents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals to help them recognize and address mental health issues in children.

Bottom line: All eyes are on improving youth mental health

Organizations, individuals, and digital technology all have a role to play in improving access to mental healthcare for young people. Mobile apps, teletherapy, and online support groups are some examples of digital tools that can make mental health services more accessible and affordable, providing kids with a greater sense of control over their mental health, expanding access to care, and allowing providers and patients to monitor progress. 

By increasing access to mental health services, reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, and providing support to our youth, we can help them develop skills to cope and build resilience, monitor them for early warning signs, impact reductions in violence, and give them the care and resources they need to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.