Can Young Mental Health Navigators Ease the Crisis Facing Today's Students?

Mental Health

Can Young Mental Health Navigators Ease the Crisis Facing Today's Students?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jun 4, 2024

Can Young Mental Health Navigators Ease the Crisis Facing Today's Students?

This article is part of the collection: Making Sense of K-12 Student Mental Health.

Young people are struggling with mental health, and for many, the challenges have worsened over the last decade. About one in three high schoolers report persistent feelings of hopelessness and an alarming number say they’ve had thoughts of suicide.

Blame it on the pandemic, or climate change. Blame it on hyperpartisan politics, or the ubiquity of social media and smartphones. Regardless of the cause, today’s teenagers have made clear, in numerous surveys and anecdotes, that they need support.

But across the country, there are too few mental health specialists to serve the growing number of adolescents who could benefit from their services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than a third of the country lives in an area where there is a shortage of mental health professionals, with at least 6,000 additional practitioners needed.

A cross section of leaders across government, philanthropy and the private sector believe that youth can be the solution to both challenges: They can simultaneously offer help and resources to their fellow Zoomers (as members of Gen Z are often called) while building skills that will draw them into — and will make them successful in — careers in behavioral health.

This fall, at least 500 recent high school and college graduates between the ages of 18 and 24 will make up the inaugural cohort of the Youth Mental Health Corps, a national initiative led by AmeriCorps, America Forward, Pinterest and the Schultz Family Foundation.

To start, it will launch in four states: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas. A year later, in fall 2025, seven more states are expected to join the program: California, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Virginia.

“It is really an innovative effort to try to address both parts of this crisis, by enabling initially hundreds and then thousands of young people to serve … in communities,” says Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a managing director at the Schultz Family Foundation.

Members of the Youth Mental Health Corps will serve for at least one year, with placements in middle and high schools as well as community-based organizations and health clinics. The program, which supports members in enrolling in or continuing college courses to work toward earning a degree, offers members career guidance on selecting a credential pathway to pursue and preparation and training for their placement.

Because members are just starting out in behavioral health, they will not be working as therapists or counselors, Chandrasekaran notes. Instead, they’ll primarily serve as “navigators,” helping connect peers and near-peers to services that already exist in their communities that they may not know about or know how to access.

“Folks often don’t know where to start,” explains AJ Pearlman, director of Public Health AmeriCorps. “That navigation and resource support is incredibly helpful, being in school or at a community clinic, meeting people where they are.”

Last year, AmeriCorps invested upward of $260 million in programming to support mental health nationwide, a spokesperson shared. In recent years, AmeriCorps applicants have increasingly shown interest in the mental health and behavioral health fields, at the same time that demand for mental health services has risen. The Youth Mental Health Corps is launching in response to those twin trends.

As a current AmeriCorps member serving with Colorado Youth for a Change, an organization that will become part of the Youth Mental Health Corps this fall, Nelly Grosso, 24, is getting a preview of what this work will look like. She connects high school students to mental health resources, food banks, pro bono immigration lawyers and public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid.

Grosso, who identifies as a “first-generation American student,” says she primarily works with students who, like her, are the first in their family to navigate the American education system. Grosso has found that many students face language, income and resource barriers that are making it difficult for them to show up to school and engage in class. Those barriers are also taking a toll on students’ mental health. She introduces different coping mechanisms and calming strategies to students who are experiencing anxiety, depression, stress and anger, she says, but most of all, she’s trying to help remove the obstacles causing those feelings in the first place.

“It’s really hard to ask for help … because you don’t [always] know what you need,” she says. “It’s easy to feel isolated and alone.”

Grosso has created packets for her students that direct them to a host of free resources available to them. “I’m planting little seeds in everybody’s brain,” she says, so that when they are struggling, they’ll remember there’s a whole list of people and organizations that can help them.

Although Youth Mental Health Corps members will be acting more as liaisons to behavioral health services than delivering those supports themselves, their exposure to such services — and the people who provide them — is intended to help members learn about the field and further incentivize them to launch careers in it, Pearlman adds.

During their service year, they’ll receive a living stipend and an education award, along with training and credentials that will get them started on the path toward behavioral health.

“It will give them a leg up, a head start, in their journey to hopefully become a trained mental health professional,” Chandrasekaran says of the experience.

Both Pearlman and Chandrasekaran refer to the youth mental health challenges today as a “national crisis,” echoing a sentiment that the U.S. Surgeon General has made clear in recent years.

They believe other young adults, of the same generation as the teens and tweens whose mental health is imperiled, are well positioned to help.

Corps members will know firsthand what it’s like to navigate high school in the era of social media, for example. They’ll know what it’s like to experience regular lockdown drills throughout the school year and to feel that the future of the planet rests on their shoulders.

“What we’re really trying to do is to get our youth more people in their corner who understand what they’re experiencing and want to invest in their success,” Pearlman says.

Grosso has found that to be true of her experience in AmeriCorps.

“Nobody understands teenagers more than somebody who has recently been through high school,” she says, noting that she uses TikTok and Instagram to relate to the students she works with at a public high school in the Denver metro area. “That’s a huge privilege that comes with being my age.”

But it goes deeper than that for Grosso. Raised by her monolingual Spanish-speaking grandparents, she felt that she was left to navigate the U.S. education system on her own. Surrounded by peers who spoke of things like SATs, PSATs and FAFSA forms, she felt lost.

She says that’s why this work resonates so much with her.

“My students are going through the same, or very similar, things that I did in high school,” Grosso explains. “I’m able to be the person to my students that I didn't have, which is really healing.”

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