Spring 2023

The crisis in mental health among young people requires our attention

A commentary

Youth and Mental Health

  • by George Q. Daley
  • 2 minute read

Earlier this year, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published  by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pertained to mental health surveillance data gathered between 2013 and 2019 on U.S. children. The wide-ranging analysis presented sobering statistics, indicating, for example, that 20 percent of those aged 12 to 17 had experienced a major depressive episode during the study period, and that in 2019 alone nearly 37 percent of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless and nearly 19 percent had considered suicide.

A few months after that report, the CDC released its Youth Risk Behavior Survey which presented data gathered between 2011 and 2021. The findings were equally alarming, especially pertaining to young girls and LGBQ+ students. In 2021, three in five girls indicated they felt persistently sad and hopeless, while one in four reported serious suicidal ideation, both measures reflecting an increase of nearly 60 percent from 2011. Suicide attempts also increased in 2021, with one in ten girls reporting an attempt, a 30 percent increase from a decade ago. Among LBGQ+ students, nearly 25 percent said they had attempted suicide in 2021 and nearly 75 percent reported persistent sadness or hopelessness.

HMS is deeply committed to addressing this mental health crisis. An initiative we’ve undertaken to improve mental health care for young people provides educational assistance to middle and high school counselors and community health workers; offers additional training to frontline health care providers; and weaves mental health firmly into the HMS MD curriculum so that our future physicians are more thoroughly prepared to identify and attend to mental health issues in their patients. These efforts are being supported by a generous $5.5 million grant from the Manton Foundation.

Vikram Patel, The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, is leading efforts to develop tools and provide educational assistance to school counselors and community workers. Patel and a collaborative of national and international experts in mental health treatment will partner with professional groups representing school counselors to design a digital skills-based curriculum for use by in-school counselors, faith-based organizations, and other youth-focused groups nationwide. The goal is to provide young people with access to the skills they need to cope with emotional stress and to manage their difficulties purposefully.

Our curricular effort is being led by Todd Griswold, an HMS assistant professor of psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance. With a team of clinician-educators, Griswold is crafting a curriculum that draws upon the lessons learned in the collaborative care model for depression, which provides access to mental health support in primary care settings. This new curriculum will integrate into the preclerkship courses for our medical students so that its lessons can be reinforced during clinical rotations.

The state of mental health in this country and throughout the world requires us to do more to help young people who are experiencing the pain of trauma and mental illness. HMS is leading efforts to address this issue.

George Q. Daley is the dean of Harvard Medical School.