Our Kids Are Not All Right:
Our Response to the Growing Youth Mental Health Crisis
We've all seen the heartbreaking headlines and heard the stories:
Youth who do well in school, participate in sports and are friends with everyone are shocking those closest to them taking their own lives at alarming rates...
Our youth are exhausted, anxious, depressed and overly-stressed, and an alarming number of them have contemplated or attempted suicide - 46% more youth took their lives nationwide in 2017 than in 2007, and an astounding 22% of local middle school students seriously considered suicide last year.
With the arrival of our new President/CEO in 2016, the Board of Directors took on a three-year strategic planning process to establish an updated vision for the Volunteer Center's future. The plan included an evaluation of our current programs created to keep the organization at the heart of responding to the community's needs, including Operation Teddy Bear (addressing educational inequity) and Food For Kids (addressing food insecurity).
More importantly, the assessment identified the critical needs currently facing our community. After combing through data and speaking with members of the community, it became quite clear that their top concern was the mental health crisis facing our youth, and specifically, how excessive screen time and social media addiction are affecting their social and emotional health.
Story after story revealed that many of our youth are showing a lack of empathy, resilience, balance, self-confidence and other characteristics necessary for emotional wellness. But why is this happening?
Think about the youth in your life - many are glued to handheld screens in restaurants, at events and at family gatherings. We've all seen it and the facts tell us:
- The youth in our lives are spending 6-9 hours a day on screens - in addition to time spent for school-related purposes.
- Studies show the more time they spend glued to screens, the higher the likelihood the youth will suffer from extreme lack of sleep, and exhibit signs of anxiety and depression - which are all indicators of an increased risk of suicide.
- Although they have hundreds of "friends" online, many feel completely isolated and alone. On top of that, they have difficulty reading emotions, communicating effectively and empathizing with each other.
Despite extreme personal costs to their health and emotional well-being, many of these high-achieving students still manage to be accepted into phenomenal colleges. Unfortunately, an alarming amount of them arrive in fragile emotional states, and find themselves unable to manage the balance college requires, dropping out, returning home or even attempting suicide. Southern California universities have seen a 100-168% increase in requests for counseling services - and that's just the students who seek out help.
Typically, when people hear "excessive screen time and social media addiction," they focus on the negative content that youth are viewing, such as violent games, bullying and suggestive materials. We believe that previous generations also dealt with this content, just in different formats. Instead of focusing on the content youth are viewing on the screen, we are more concerned with what the youth are missing off the screen, such as the face-to-face interactions and other elements of emotional development our youth and families need.
We are missing important moments of connection while our eyes are glued to our phones, tablets, computers and televisions. Studies have shown that excessive screen usage is inhibiting the ability for the young brain to develop empathy and compassion, breaking down the parent/child attachment bonds, and blocking the ability to learn to read emotions and social cues. These are all skills our youth must have in order to develop healthy emotional and social wellness, and compassion is an especially important trait that we need to promote right now.
The mental health field is severely understaffed. The schools and medical field can't face this crisis alone. To offset the shortage in licensed professionals, our community desperately needs more options for informal care and self-care, which is where organizations like ours play a key role. Screens are now an everyday part of our lives... but the suffering doesn't have to be.
The Volunteer Center is taking on a significant leadership role to address this issue, just as we have in the past. We have a history of listening to the members of our community to discover when critical needs are going unmet. We then lead the response by assembling a team of caring, talented volunteers to create programs and services, such as Operation Teddy Bear and Food For Kids, that offer members of our community the opportunity to contribute to the solution.
These are our children. This is our community. This is our next big challenge and we need your help.
We are proud to continue our commitment to compassionately supporting families, since this is a society-wide issue that no other generation has had to face. It’s important that families not feel guilty or believe they are failing as we support them in making gradual changes. We envision a community where families find the balance needed to protect their children’s mental health, and are more connected to each other and the world.
PHASE 1: FEBRUARY - APRIL 2018 (COMPLETE)
We conducted more than 50 interviews and informal discussions with a variety of community members, including mental health experts, representatives from the major area hospitals, educators, law enforcement, nonprofit leaders, faith-based community representatives, parents, affected youth and private philanthropists.
We also attended events featuring panels of experts and the youth themselves; conducted extensive research of nationwide information; and developed an extensive database of proven studies, existing programs, program ideas, articles, anecdotes and incidents mentioned in the news. Finally, we compiled county, state and national data from the most well-respected universities, agencies and experts in the field of mental health.
OUR GOAL: To fully identify the problem - including a needs assessment with supporting statistics, affected populations and stakeholders - and develop the preliminary draft of what our community believes to be the major contributing factors.
PHASE 2: MAY - SEPTEMBER 2018 (COMPLETE)
We engaged the community during a series of four Community Input Meetings with mental health advisors, local parents and caregivers, the faith community, and the youth themselves. We asked them to help us:
OUR GOAL: To identify the top factors that community members feel are contributing to this crisis and identify the solutions they need most, led by the guiding values of empathy, inclusion and vulnerability.
We have been partnering closely with the community to identify services that are effective, measurable and meet local needs.
We are currently developing three strategies that will help families address this crisis:
Click either or both links below to join the interest lists about our Parent/Caregiver Education Course and Teen Program, so you can be among the first to learn updates!
We are also creating a Mental Health Professionals Network to help index as many mental health professionals and their specialties as we can, to both increase referrals for families and create a strong coalition of expertise to advise our services and pool resources. When the newly identified services and education campaigns are ready to be rolled out community-wide, the members of this network can, as a group, provide a larger collective impact than the Volunteer Center could provide alone.
OUR GOAL: To develop unique services requested by the community.
Screen Time and Mental Health with Dr. Jean Twenge
For our first major public event on this topic, we hosted an evening with nationally-renowned author and professor Dr. Jean Twenge, in partnership with Torrance Unified School District and South Bay Families Connected, where she shared her groundbreaking research on screen time and mental health with local families.
Dr. Twenge delivered an engaging presentation, including eye-opening data from her research on "iGen" and practical tips to counter the effects of screens on teens, which were in line with the services we are currently developing. We also hosted a Special Reception for community leaders and those who have played an integral role in our work over the past year prior to the presentation. It was truly gratifying to hear Dr. Twenge - who we have quoted in countless conversations - confirm that we are headed in the right direction. Click here to see more photos from the recent event on Facebook.
President/CEO Sara Myers discussed our new youth mental health focus, including the research, community input, plans to help families address screen time and social media addiction, and helpful resources we can all use now on the February 5 episode of Torrance Citi CABLE's NEWSBREAK LIVE. Many thanks to Hibah Samad and her team for the opportunity to talk about this work and our community-based approach!
Your support will help us:
- Educate, equip and encourage families to gradually reduce excessive screen time in favor of more connected and compassionate activities.
- Instill more empathy, resilience and emotional wellness in our community’s youth through an updated youth program.
- Spread community-wide awareness of the issue and help initiate gradual changes in behavior to reach as many families as possible.
Click here to help make an impact with a financial contribution, so together, we can create the services our local families have said they so desperately need.