Anna, 14, wrote a prize-winning essay about social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth Voice

Access to Mental Health Services for Children Begins Locally: Advocates Can Help

Now's the time to speak out on behalf of investment in better mental health resources for children and adolescents. Here's how to help. 

Today's adolescents face multiple challenges to their mental health

In the ever-accelerating whirl of the 21st century, where every aspect of life is measured, rated and incessantly documented on social media, teenagers are not just living our lives; we are perpetually on display. Today's teens are the first generation to grow up entirely online, where cyberbullying is rampant, sleep is disrupted by screens and self-esteem is often tethered to likes and shares. Globally, the World Health Organization reports that more than 1 in 7 adolescents from the ages of 10 to 19 lives with a mental health condition and here in the United States, poor mental health among children remains a substantial health concern according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, more than 14 million children and adolescents have been diagnosed with a mental health condition; that’s more than double the population of my home state of Colorado.

The statistics paint a bleak picture: a significant rise in cases of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders among teenagers over the last decade. According to the American Psychological Association, the rate of those experiencing depressive episodes has risen exponentially, particularly among young girls. The reasons are multifaceted but not indecipherable. This rise was amplified by the pandemic as everyone was stuck at home and spending more time on their screens. I definitely saw a rise in the use of platforms like TikTok and Instagram during the pandemic, and these platforms can create a cyber-world that is not healthy to constantly be a part of. While I enjoyed some time alone at my house, I started to miss social interactions and in-person school; the effects of the pandemic are still with me today.

Social stigma and underfunding are limiting much-needed investment in mental health support and services

What's more alarming is the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health conditions. Mental health is a global concern, yet stigma and underfunding have limited investment in mental health services and support — especially in countries where it's needed the most. Less than 1 percent of government health budgets in low-income countries is spent on mental health. According to the 2023 State of Mental Health in America Report, over 16 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 in the U.S. experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2022. Sixty percent did not receive mental health treatment. Across the country, there are 350 individuals for every one mental health provider. In addition, many teens struggle in silence, fearing judgment or misunderstanding from their peers and adults. This stigma not only discourages them from seeking help, but it can also exacerbate their feelings of loneliness and alienation.

I have witnessed the impact poor mental health can have on friends and family close to me. People often view “health” as how a person looks. However, what people don’t always realize is that mental health is just as big of an issue as physical health. While everyone can see a broken leg, most people cannot see internal mental health issues, which I would argue can be more serious most of the time. Access to mental health services is a universal child’s right and according to UNICEF, positive mental health means better life outcomes for children and young people. Every child and young person has the right to grow up in a loving, nurturing and safe environment, with supportive relationships and access to quality mental health and psychosocial support.

In 2023, my state of Colorado established a temporary behavioral health services program called “I Matter” to provide access to mental health and substance use disorder services for youth, including addressing needs that may have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, legislators in Colorado took a major step forward in improving mental health care for youth by passing SB24-001, extending the “I Matter” program and allowing children and teens across the state free access to therapy, which could significantly help reduce depression and anxiety rates. I was extremely excited to see this bill passed, as it will have an immediate impact on friends and classmates who need help at my school and in my community.

Raising awareness is the first step toward improving mental health policies

While improving access to mental health services among young people remains a key issue, raising awareness around the importance of mental health services in the state of Colorado and beyond is the first step in addressing this issue. This Mental Health Awareness Month, I wrote to my local legislators and urged Governor Jared Polis to sign SB24-001 into law to extend the "I Matter" program. I also asked state representatives to go one step further by funding the Crisis Resolutions Teams program to provide urgent mental health services to the state’s youth when they are in crisis.

And while every voice matters, one is not enough. Young people throughout the country need urgent support. Our generation is counting on people like you to speak up and influence policies to protect the well-being of children and adolescents.

Advocates across the U.S. can raise their voices, too. Join UNICEF USA in calling on elected officials to prioritize mental health services for all children and adolescents.


TOP PHOTO: Fourteen-year-old Anna's essay examining the effects of social isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was awarded a prize in an Italian literary competition. © UNICEF/UN0483565/Majoli/Magnum Photos