Analytic Charts on Computer Screen

Another Possible Reason for the Rise in Youth Mental Health Issues

We are all familiar with the popular theories.

  • Pandemic lock-downs and loneliness
  • Social Media
  • Lack of time spent outdoors
  • Worrying about school shootings
  • Whatever oppressed group we’re blaming for all things wrong with kids these days, etc.

Obviously, some of the popular theories are more realistic than others, but Ben Miller suggests there might be something else at play in the US, and he uses Dr. Tom Insel’s observations about his time at NIHM to put his theory in context:

Dr. Tom Insel said about his time running the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that he “Spent 13 years at NIMH really pushing on the neuroscience and genetics of mental disorders, and when I look back on that I realize that while I think I succeeded at getting lots of really cool papers published by cool scientists at fairly large costs—I think $20 billion—I don’t think we moved the needle in reducing suicide, reducing hospitalizations, improving recovery for the tens of millions of people who have mental illness.”

It is something we’ve talked about before. Our common responses to someone struggling with their mental health don’t account for the people for whom just living is stressful and full of anxiety. Poverty is a huge contributor to mental health struggles, and not having access to mental healthcare just creates a cycle of negativity. Ben points out that the Child Tax Credit was expanded to assist poor families with pandemic-related economic hardships in 2021.

The rate of childhood poverty dropped to historic lows.

Then it went away. And, well, what else would you expect?

According to NPR, “…A year ago, child poverty hit a historic low of 5.2%. The latest figures [a year after the child tax credits expired] put it at 12.4%, the same as the overall poverty rate. The surge happened as record inflation was rising and a lot of pandemic relief was running out, but Census officials and other experts say a key was the child tax credit.”

I think there were a lot of us who came out of 2020-21 assuming youth mental health would be a lot worse than we were seeing in the research. Then in 2022 youth mental health hit crisis levels, the overall suicide rate went up to record levels, and mental health seems to be about as poor as it’s ever been.

The poverty rates for children and families are also rising.

That might not be a coincidence.

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