Amid growing concern over teen mental health, Seattle-area youths create their own resource
Experts are advocating for more resources from governments, schools and other institutions to address a mental health crisis among children. In the meantime, a group of young people has created its own resource: a multicultural mental health guide for teens.
In a collaboration between The Seattle Times Education Lab and King County Public Health’s Social Media Ambassadors and Soar youth programs, the guide isn't just a list of numbers to call. It explains exactly what would happen if someone reaches out.
The guide is particularly handy for teens because, in Washington, people 13 years old and older can access mental health services and treatments without the consent of a parent or guardian, according to the Times.
Demystifying the outreach process was central to the project, said high school senior Juli Malit, 17.
“First, addressing your mental health is hard, and then second, actually navigating — I know that this organization exists, what am I going to do with it? What am I supposed to say? What are they going to say back?” Malit said. “It's more anxiety on top of, maybe, the anxiety that you're already trying to address. So those things kind of just add on to each other and make it really hard for a lot of us to seek out the help that we need.”
Malit, who enjoys robotics and listening to Taylor Swift, profiled the Asian Counseling and Referral Service. As a Filipino immigrant who also plans to be the first in her family to attend college in the U.S., her own mental health was on the backburner.
“You don't get a notification that's like, ‘Hey, you should go to bed right now.’ Nobody tells you, 'Hey, you should start [addressing your mental health] now, so it doesn't get worse,' ” Malit said. “I didn't realize until we were there and doing it and talking about it like we really needed this [guide] and I needed this.”
The guide comes during a time when local and national concern is growing about youth mental health experiences during the pandemic.
This month, the U.S. surgeon general issued a rare advisory about warning about a youth mental health crisis. At the same time, the Washington State Health Department shared new data indicating that more kids continue to show up in the state’s emergency rooms due to mental health crises, including suicidal ideation, symptoms related to eating disorders, and severe anxiety and depression.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the health department. “It doesn’t count all the kids at home who may have quite severe symptoms and really are going through a really stressful, difficult time with their emotional and behavioral health. And I think what it points to is that we really need more to help these kids.”
Kwan-Gett encouraged families to keep an eye out for dramatic changes in mood or energy and look for other signs their children may be struggling.
Among her friend group, 23-year-old Samira Farah noticed some of her friends would brush off their problems as just bad days.
“When it comes to speaking on our own issues and our own mental health needs, I think there's a lot of surface-level conversations,” Farah said. “Although we may express how we're feeling and what things we want to do, things aren't really being done to get the help that we need.”
Farah profiled the Muslim Behavioral Health Network for the guide. She said connecting with her spirituality has been a successful strategy, not only for herself but also in combating some of the stigma within her Somali community, which can make it difficult to talk about mental health.
“Muslims are very positive when it comes to mental health, and we are very spiritual,” Farah said. “But in the Somali community, because there is a lot of stigma, we tend to focus more on that rather than the Muslim perspective. So I wanted to let people know that there is that avenue” for addressing mental health.
That’s part of why it was important to focus on multicultural organizations that cater to particular communities, Malit said.
“Just in general within the Asian-American community, it's kind of taboo to talk about your mental health, especially with immigrants,” Malit said. “It's like we work hard, we push through and that's our default. So talking about your mental health and how life is hard, even if it is true, it's a lot more difficult.”
The guide was published in late November, and Malit said she’s already seeing its impact. After sharing it on her social media, she’s seen it shared over and over again by friends and acquaintances.
“But I think the biggest impact to me was just a handful of people telling me, ‘I'm looking into these resources right now. Thank you for getting it out there,’” Malit said. “If one person reaches out to one of these organizations because we put it out there, then that's all I feel like I needed to do with this project.”
The guide is available as a downloadable PDF for schools, counseling centers and other youth services.