Young people turn to alcohol and self-harm because mental health is ignored | Jennifer Thomas

“We must move beyond a passive response to youth mental health issues and respond forcefully.”

People know that if we talk about mental health, people turn away. If we don’t talk about mental health, people ignore it. But by taking action, we can ensure that no one turns away – because young people all over the country are reaching out for help.

Yesterday at a national conference on youth mental health, the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr Vivek Murthy, said it is “time to show that we’re talking about youth mental health – even when we don’t want to”. He went on to urge Congress to pass the Young Invincibles Act, a bill that would establish a youth mental health council to work with the Surgeon General’s office to address and eliminate any barriers to receiving mental health care.

At conference for mental health professionals in New York

Before working with the Department of Education and with students in the Harlem community to address this issue, I was working in the fields of public health and global public health. Students from all over the world including students from the US, Canada, Ghana, the UK, Australia, Taiwan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and South Korea came to my clinic in Jamaica, New York, to talk about their experiences with mental health issues. However, students often asked questions and seek feedback on services provided by their schools and schools’ mental health programs. I knew that there were many students, young adults and adults who are struggling with mental health issues and that there was an urgent need for greater understanding and collaborative working between schools, public health and the community.

One of the major reasons for missing school or a steady job is because of a mental health issue. Before a teenager or young adult even comes to my office, I am working with them to develop a medication, get their finances in order, and, with the help of mental health professionals, help navigate government services and find treatment. Before I even start working with the student, it is a very important step to get their family or friends to ensure that the student is getting the right treatment.

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Taking these steps can make a tremendous difference for a young person’s life. As the Surgeon General pointed out, the skyrocketing use of self-destructive and other lethal means of ending one’s life is a crisis for the nation – and we are all working to address it.

Building trust and ensuring youth are reaching out for treatment in sufficient numbers is a collaborative effort. We have the potential to eliminate the stigma that prevents youth from seeking treatment for mental health issues.

In my field I see the hurt that substance use and alcohol misuse cause. Sometimes it is children who try to control a mental health issue by getting rid of alcohol or taking a substance to relieve the anxiety. I am seeing this in my clinic every day. For the child or young adult, alcohol or drug use has taken away a chance at recovery. For the family who may use these substances to cope with their addiction, the situation is far more complex. Treating a patient who is dependent on a substance is not the same as treating someone who is dependent on a substance because of a mental health problem.

This strategy is part of the evidence-based prevention plan that will help to make youth mental health a priority for mental health professionals, school administrators, parents, policy makers and legislators. But there is so much more that needs to be done.

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