Aiding Youth Mental Health through Community Connection

COVID-19 has aggravated the mental health problems of young people, with increased levels of suicide, anxiety and other issues. Of course, many of these issues were problematic even before the pandemic, and many organizations are working to connect youth with their community as a partial solution.

Measure of America says that the number of “disconnected youth,” teens and young adults ages 16–24 years who are neither working nor in school, jumped by nearly 20% between 2019 and 2020, from 10.7% to 12.6%. This follows a ten-year decline from a high of 14.7% in 2010. These numbers were even higher for people of color, with the greatest disconnection seen for Native American youth and Black males.

Youth mental health problems have also increased during the pandemic. The 2022 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, released earlier this year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, showed that the number of kids “likely to encounter anxiety or depression” in 2020 was 26% higher than in 2016, from 9.4% among children ages 3–17 (5.8 million kids) to 11.8% (7.3 million). One of the bleak outcomes of this data is attempted suicide, with 9% of high-schoolers making such an attempt during the year surveyed. The numbers were higher for kids of color, with 12% of Black students, 13% of students of two or more races and 26% of American Indian or Native Alaskan high-schoolers attempting suicide.

Clearly, these issues demand an “all hands on deck” approach, with steps that range from improved mental health screening and services to poverty reduction. One of the simple preventive factors in which each of us can take part is to enhance social relationships to connect kids with their communities. As Steve Culbertson, CEO of Youth Service America (YSA) says, “finding ways to connect young people is one of the best things you can do for mental health.”

And from Kristan Allen and Lydia Bernardo, of the National Mentoring Center:

As much as things seem to be in a never-ending state of change, one thing remains constant: the power of relationships. Now more than ever, we’re all probably realizing the important role relationships play in our lives. Connection is critical, especially for young people who have spent the past two years dealing with isolation and massive upheaval in their daily routines. Relationships can be an important protective factor when it comes to supporting youth’s mental health and well-being.

Youth Service America (YSA) has initiated a national campaign to increase youth community engagement, roughly doubling current youth participation in three categories, volunteering and service, voting and civic engagement, and joining and leadership, to a 50% youth participation rate, by America’s 250th birthday on July 4, 2026.

Current participation rates are around 25% for these categories, according to YSA. Examples include: 22% of young people ages 15-24 volunteer; 23% of eligible first-time voters (18-19 year-olds) vote; and 32% of youth are a part of more than one community group. YSA is quick to point out, however, that participation rates are lower among youth from underserved low-income and BIPOC communities than for others.

Increasing youth engagement in the areas targeted by YSA will not only help the young people, but also society as a whole, by harnessing the voices and energy of young people to help address key challenges that, if not addressed soon, will affect them even more in the future.

YSA is a broad coalition and is always looking for more partners and support. Join the cause!

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