A really in support of teen mental health services in Killingly last May. Lesley Cosme Torres / Connecticut Public

In 1855 Fredrick Douglas said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  Over 150 years later, this quote is still poignantly relevant, as the mental challenges confronting American teens have slowly escalated into a national health crisis. 

Put simply, adolescence is a transitional period of psychological and physical development in children 10 to 19. Growth during this period often influences the future trajectory of adolescent lives. With today’s youth sleeping, exercising, and socializing less, the associated cognitive and adaptive challenges are leading to future mental health problems on a massive scale.

Despite the problem and its current lack of solutions, there are state-level measures that can be implemented to ensure that Connecticut’s adolescents receive the care they deserve.

While I could take the time to share several unsettling statistics that elucidate the severity of the adolescent mental health crisis, I believe a better use of this platform is to outline potential solutions to this problem. That being said, a single statistic stands out to me when viewing Connecticut’s standing on this problem.

According to data collected by Mental Health America (MHA) in 2022, the percentage of youth aged 12 to 17 experiencing major depressive episodes but not receiving medical attention was 65.6% in the state of Connecticut. Nearly two-thirds of young people in our state that needed help did not get any last year. With so much media attention hovering around mental health amongst youth, how could we be failing so egregiously to even provide basic assistance?

On a broader scale, getting teenagers to talk about their mental health is difficult.  Our schools -–where young people spend most of their active hours in a day–-are not equipped with adequate resources to properly address every student’s needs. Staffing shortages and budget cuts in large school districts such as my old hometown, Milford, puts added pressure on resources.

One approach for addressing the lack of intervention resources while simultaneously getting young people to be more vocal about their mental challenges comes directly from the MHA.  The MHA recommends investing in student training to ensure that all young people learn the skills needed to promote mental health and support their peers. After all, teenagers are more likely to open up to their peers than to adult figures. Additionally, if every student in a school is trained to be a mental health advocate, then the magic in the power of numbers can be extraordinary.

This idea is the basis for the training that my peers and I attended through our high school recently.  The skills-based training called “Teenage Mental Health First Aid” clarified attributes of mental health issues and potential cues for mental illness and substance use disorders.  The five-hour class focused on three key actionable attributes that all students could learn: identify, understand, and respond. 

First, we were taught how to look for and identify subtle changes in the behavior of our peers.  If we saw changes that lasted over a few days, we were then instructed on methods we could use to understand the cause of the change in the behavior.  A central message to trainees was to strive to be good outlets to listen to struggling peers.  Finally, we were instructed on various forms of response, including speaking with the school nurse or counselor.

The larger goal of this training is to make mental health assistance as common as CPR while reducing the stigma associated and highlighting recovery and hope.  If high schools in the state of Connecticut organize Mental Health First Aid training for their student population, some of the challenges with access to care and illness identification can be mitigated.  Please visit the Teen Mental Health First Aid Kid for more information on the training.

If you are someone battling a mental illness, please seek professional help and know that you are not alone in your battle.  In urgent cases, text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or call 800-273- 8255.

Shikhar Motupally is a rising senior at Avon Old Farms School.