Alarms are ringing about a youth mental health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings, attacks on LGBTQ+ youth, and a worsening climate crisis threaten the future of young people. All of this has dovetailed with an ever-growing pressure on students to achieve ever more at increasingly younger ages. From the CDC and the Surgeon General to teachers, psychologists and students themselves, the calls for better mental health programs to support youth are ubiquitous. But what would an effective response look like?

To answer this question, YouthTruth (an initiative of the Center for Effective Philanthropy) recently analyzed the answers of over 220,000 students to questions about their emotional and mental health, and the help available to them.

The eye-popping findings include that students at every secondary grade, six through 12, cite “depression, stress and anxiety” as the most prevalent obstacle to their learning. At the same time, the percentage of students who report feeling happy about their lives steadily drops from grade three (64 percent) through twelve (55 percent), evidence of a concerning happiness slide that diminishes the American student experience. Students’ qualitative sentiments add even more evidence to the national consensus that things have to change.

But, change how, in these chaotic times? How can funders respond in ways that are both effective and responsive to youth? Students themselves are adamant that they want a different kind of response, one that truly includes them in generating solutions.

What We Learned from Students

In response to the YouthTruth survey, students expressed a collective exasperation with the adult-driven response to the challenges confronting them. And many overtly reject being labeled by adults and the media as a “crisis generation.” Youth know that their house — actually our house — is on fire, and they implore adults to unlock the front door and invite them into the fight. The key to that door? As many students admonished, unlocking the power of youth agency requires that adults “talk to us first.”

Consider that less than a quarter of secondary students surveyed (22 percent of middle school students and 24 percent of high school students) report that in the last year they accessed a school counselor or psychologist when they were upset, stressed, or having a problem.

Why aren’t more students accessing the services they need? While funding more counselors is certainly necessary, students detail barriers to accessing the counselors they already have, including scheduling and misperceptions that high-achieving students don’t need support. Students also expressed widespread concern about privacy, “​​Counselors are known to be someone not to go to if you need help because somehow it ends up being your fault or when you’re told it will be confidential it’s not.”

Students also give low ratings to school programs intended to help them when they are having problems. Less than half of middle school students agree that their school has programs that help them (41 percent) and that percentage drops for high school students to a mere 36 percent.

Read the full article about mental health by Jennifer de Forest and Serena Meghani at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.