We recently spoke with Matthew G. Smith, CPP, Executive Director, Preventionfocus, about supporting young people with mental health issues. Preventionfocus offers programs and strategies to prevent drug abuse and promote health.  Their mission: Making safe and healthy happen by empowering individuals to make positive choices.

Q: Is your agency seeing an increase in mental health issues among teens?

Our agency has a limited view as Preventionfocus goes into schools, facilitate standard curriculum packages over the course of several weeks, and then move on to other schools. But from what they have experienced or heard through conversations with school contacts, our prevention specialists report some increases in anxiety and depression. Whether the number of cases has increased or not, the ability of teens to recognize and then talk about mental health problems has certainly increased.

Q: If so, what do you attribute this to?

The national dialogue on mental health has made young people more savvy than their predecessors so they can talk more which is good. The speed at which things are shared on social media, and the pressure to maintain a certain virtual image, can be problematic. Another factor we see is a fractured family structure. Many students lack a stable home environment.

Prevention is a proactive approach that keeps healthy people healthy and gives those at higher risk a better chance of avoiding dangerous and unhealthy behaviors. Underage drinking, substance abuse, problem gambling, bullying, obesity, violence, suicide, and a host of related problems can be reduced when the proper prevention strategies are implemented. Preventionfocus puts such strategies to work every day in an effort to stop problems before they start.

Q: What issues are they experiencing?

Students frequently mention getting stressed out while trying to manage their time. They also cite technology and social media as being contributing factors to stress and general unease.  Add in economic concerns, substance abuse, and wrestling with labels and norms around gender, sexuality, race, etc. and things are quite stressful for young people.  Some students say they are always nervous and can’t sleep and their homework and test grades suffer.  They sometimes act out in school or at home.

Q: Does stigma impact teens seeking help?

It does. There is still reluctance among some for fear of being labeled. Families might also be reluctant to get help for them. But we also find many teens eager to help struggling individuals to get to the proper pathways to assistance and eager to fight stigma. 

Q: How does your organization help young people?

Our programs give young people the skills and information they need to make safe and healthy choices around drug & alcohol use, and related issues like mental health. We also help schools and communities to create nurturing environments where safer and healthier choices are easier and, therefore, more likely. Many programs and initiatives are about communication and fostering positive relationships. If you give young people the right skills and information so they can participate in meaningful dialogues about important issues, they build connections with peers and adults that strengthen them and help them cope with the challenges that come their way. We also strive to normalize help-seeking and help-giving behavior.