According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are the single most common cause of disability in young people. In North America, approximately 15%–20% of children and adolescents are suffering from some form of mental disorder. Furthermore, 70% of mental disorders onset prior to the age of 25, making the adolescent years a critical window in which mental health can be promoted, and mental health problems can be addressed.
If left untreated, mental disorders can impede all aspects of health, including emotional well-being and social development, leaving young people feeling socially isolated, stigmatized, and unable to optimize their social, vocational, and interpersonal contributions to society. Addressing mental health problems early in life can lead to decreases in emotional and behavioral problems, functional impairment, and contact with all forms of law enforcement. It can also lead to improvements in social and behavioral adjustment, learning outcomes, and school performance.
There are huge gaps in what we know about how best to treat mental illness in children and youth. The research into developmental neurobiology; the causes of mental illnesses; and the most effective, safest, and best-tolerated treatments is inadequately supported. Add to this the stigma of mental illness, and the outdated models of child and youth mental healthcare and the negligence of our society is evident.
For all of these reasons, addressing youth mental health issues is one of the most important challenges facing our society today!
So what's the solution? Here's a quick, 3-step plan to improve youth mental health:
- First, all youth mental health programs, policies, and interventions must be based on validated, scientifically sound research.
- Second, there needs to be immediate, increased investment in identification of early-onset mental disorders and effective early intervention programs to deliver appropriate care to young people.
- Finally, programs need to be integrated across jurisdictions – education, health, justice, community services as well as integrated into communities and schools.
That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, IWK Health Centre, and Dalhousie University.