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At the recent World Economic Forum in New York City, there was a session that focused on youth mental health called “Building the Mental Wealth of Young People Globally.” This session was part of a larger goal of improving mental health outcomes across the globe. Youth mental health — including prevention, early support, and services — plays a key role. 

There are evidence-based studies that show that early intervention of mental health conditions for young people is linked to better outcomes and lifelong well-being. And the consequences of unaddressed youth mental health conditions extend into adulthood, limiting people’s opportunities to lead fulfilling lives.

Given that 75 percent of all mental health issues arise before age 26, and 50 percent by age 14, the need for a global focus on youth mental health and services is profound

A public health approach helps youth get support

By making mental health services and resources readily available, we are investing in the future well-being of our society. When asked about the key barriers to access, nearly half of young people say they don’t know where to go to find these tools. The cost of help was the second biggest barrier, and roughly half said they can’t afford the cost of mental health resources.

During the panel, one of the session presenters, Patrick McGorry, discussed using a public health approach to provide support for youth in Australia. They found that many traditional services weren’t able to address the unique barriers that young people face trying to access mental health support. Patrick and his colleagues created headspace, National Youth Mental Health Foundation, to address this critical gap. 

With a focus on early intervention, headspace works with young people to help them get back on track, and strengthen their ability to manage their mental health in the future. This successful model provides welcoming physical spaces as well as safe online space for young people to gain support.

Headspace’s example shows that a public health approach makes it easier for people to access mental health services in their communities. That can improve outcome,s and potentially reduce the number of young people who experience a mental health crisis before getting help.

Early intervention improves treatment outcomes

The forum session also provided a focus on the U.S. approach to youth mental health. In contrast to the Australian program, U.S. efforts have concentrated more on creating services for youth experiencing early psychosis. Psychosis is characterized as disruptions to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for them to recognize what is real and what isn’t. In the U.S., approximately 100,000 young people experience psychosis each year. 

First-episode psychosis (FEP) refers to when a person first shows signs of beginning to lose contact with reality. Acting quickly to connect a person with the right treatment during early psychosis or FEP can be life-changing, and radically alter that person’s future. FEP programs have shown that early treatment, especially during the first episode, leads to the best outcomes. FEP Programs use a holistic treatment approach called Coordinated Specialty Care (CSC), which includes a team of health professionals and specialists who work with a person and their family to create a personal treatment plan based on life goals.

I volunteer as a consulting psychiatrist at an early psychosis program. I’ve seen first-hand that youth engagement in the program is high. A vocational specialist keeps youth focused on work and school to complement their services and treatment. A full team of specialists and community of youth are there to offer support. Families are welcome at every turn. These programs are essential in helping young people with psychosis work towards their recovery.

Just a decade ago, FEP programs were very rare. Now there are around 300 programs available in 49 states. The continued expansion of these programs shows what we can accomplish if we all come together to assist youth mental health recovery.

The forum was enlightening and inspiring. Not surprisingly, there was a recognition of the important global economic impact of youth mental health problems. More importantly, the forum emphasized the human aspect of preventable youth suffering and suicide. It’s time to accelerate actions that we know are working and learn from each other. The path to success for our community will depend on how well we collaborate to bridge the gaps between youth and the resources and opportunities they need to support their mental health. This movement is a welcome one that will continue to need our support and advocacy. 

This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.

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  • Ken Duckworth, MD, serves as the medical director for NAMI. He is double-board certified in adult and child/adolescent psychiatry and has completed a forensic psychiatry fellowship. Along with his work at NAMI, Ken also works to improve care at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, volunteers and consults at an early psychosis clinic at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and teaches as an assistant clinical professor at Harvard University Medical School.