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Youth Mental Health Crisis Entering the National Conversation

The Oversight and Accountability Commission supports Ken Burns’ New Documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness

The Commission works through partnerships to catalyze transformational changes across service systems so that everyone who needs mental health care has access to and receives effective and culturally competent care.
-Commission Mission Statement
In January of 2019, Tom Chiodo, Executive Producer of Special Projects National Programing for WETA Public Broadcasting, attended a public hearing held by the Oversight and Accountability Commission (i.e., The Commission).  Tom attended this hearing with the Executive Director of The Commission, Toby Ewing.  Tom and Toby were one part of a presentation to The Commission on whether Mental Health Service Act (MHSA) money would go to support an upcoming documentary, Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness (trailer). Youth leaders, with lived experience, were also part of this presentation.  Tom Chiodo reports that he felt a “profound impact” from the message delivered by these youth.  Tom goes on to say, “It’s about the importance of listening to youth voices talk about their mental health and wellbeing.”

The Commission decided that this project was well worth supporting and committed $300,000 over three years.  Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, is the first of what is anticipated to be a three-part Ken Burns series.  There will be two more Hiding in Plain Sight documentaries on adult mental health and older adult mental health respectively.

Mental health leaders, advocates, and politicians from across the country are recognizing the mental health issues that our youth and children are facing has reached a crisis level.  This includes, but is not limited to, U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Specifically, on December 7, 2021, Dr. Murthy released an urgent Advisory Statement: Report on Children’s Mental Health calling for action from stakeholders across the country.

Dr. Murthy states: “The youth mental health crisis, at its core, is a crisis of connection. That’s why our collective response must take a relationship-first approach.  We need a national effort – among family members, schools, community organizations, policy makers and others – to ensure that every young person has stable, supportive and healthy relationships with peers and adults.“

The public broadcasting media has put forth tremendous efforts in creating a national campaign, around the youth mental health crisis in our country.  These efforts have included research, which contributes to the preponderance of evidence validating that over the last two years, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health needs … a situation that was already in a crisis stage, pre-pandemic.

The Ken Burns documentary, and national public broadcasting engagement campaign, was launched in July of 2020.  This national public media campaign, referred to as “Well Beings”, was created by WETA, the flagship PBS station in our nation’s capital.

Hiding in Plain Sight has been a collaborative effort between the Public Broadcasting station WETA “Well Beings” campaign; along with The Commission and 25 other sponsors and partners.

The intention of the Hiding in Plain Sight production is: to raise awareness; to contribute towards the reduction of stigma and discrimination around mental health; and to change the discourse bringing the youth mental health crisis to the forefront of the national conversation.

There is a long way to go in raising the youth mental health issue to a level in the national conversation that will result in real changes.  Tom states that The Commission’s contribution in bringing the youth mental health crisis to the national forefront is “… MHSA is unique to California, the largest state in the country.  With this fact in mind, The Commission has not only changed the conversations of state leadership but, has also influenced the national conversation; and has been impactful towards the message of the Well Being Youth Mental Health Project”.

Ways that parents, family members and advocates can bring the youth mental health crisis to the forefront of the national conversation is to not shy from the topic, but rather, openly talk about mental health, making it a discussion of high priority in our homes, in our schools, at our place of work, and in our communities.

When a person has a mental health concern … seek support, talk with someone, and get care.  In our society, all too often when someone appears to be struggling with emotional and/or social difficulties … the matter is avoided, it becomes invisible.  By comparison, if someone is struggling with a physical difficulty, we are with them offering help, or at a minimum calling out for help.  It’s critical that a powerful message comes across i.e., … no one is alone in the mental health struggles they may be facing.  We are in this together!

Together we can bring to fruition the needed additional mental health services of the right kind, in the right place, at the right time moving the needle towards lasting change.

One specific step that can be taken together is to make genuine contributions to the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommended Action Steps:

Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.  Mental health conditions are real, common, and treatable, and people experiencing mental health challenges deserve support, compassion, and care, not stigma and shame.  Mental health is no less important than physical health.  And that must be reflected in our how we communicate about and prioritize mental health.

Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.  For youth, this includes building strong relationships with peers and supportive adults, practicing techniques to manage emotions, taking care of body and mind, being attentive to use of social media and technology, and seeking help when needed.  For families and caregivers, this means addressing their own mental health and substance use conditions, being positive role models for children, promoting positive relationships between children and others as well as with social media and technology, and learning to identify and address challenges early.  Youth and families should know that asking for help is a sign of strength.

Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care.  Care should be tailored to children’s developmental stages and health needs, and available in primary care practices, schools, and other community-based settings.  It’s particularly important to intervene early, so that emerging symptoms don’t turn into crises.

Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings.  This includes creating positive, safe, and affirming educational environments, expanding programming that promotes healthy development (such as social and emotional learning), and providing a continuum of supports to meet the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of children and youth.  To achieve this, we must also expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.

Address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families, and caregivers.  Priorities should include reducing child poverty and ensuring access to quality childcare, early childhood services, and education; healthy food; affordable health care; stable housing; and safe neighborhoods.

Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly.  The country needs an integrated, real-time data infrastructure for understanding youth mental health trends.  More research is also needed on the relationship between technology and mental health, and technology companies should be more transparent with their data and algorithmic processes to enable this research.  We also need to better understand the needs of at-risk youth, including youth facing multiple risk factors.  Governments and other stakeholders should engage directly with young people to understand trends and design effective solutions.