Leveraging the Connection Between Youth Mental Health and Relationships

By Kristan Allen (Director of Marketing and Development) and Lydia Bernardo (Marketing Coordinator), National Mentoring Resource Center

Mental health and well-being have been top of mind for many of us over the past few years, especially regarding the young people in our communities. According to Mental Health America’s “The State of Mental Health in America” report, more than 2.5 million youth in our country have severe depression, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) youth are at higher risk. A global pandemic, gun violence, social unrest, and the prevalence of social media platforms are just a few issues exacerbating youth mental health challenges today.

As much as things seem to be in a never-ending state of change, one thing remains constant: the power of relationships. Now more than ever, we’re all probably realizing the important role relationships play in our lives. Connection is critical, especially for young people who have spent the past two years dealing with isolation and massive upheaval in their daily routines. Relationships can be an important protective factor when it comes to supporting youth’s mental health and well-being.

The Power of Connection

As caring adults, we all have a role to play in supporting young people and helping them feel known, recognized, and cared for. When it comes to mental health, it can be difficult to get conversations started. There are many unwarranted stigmas, and it can be tough to put feelings into words. However, it’s important to talk with your young people about mental health and well-being and keep that conversation going with regular check-ins. Check out these tips for fostering meaningful discussions around mental health:

  • Realize that everyone has mental health, not a mental illness – this approach moves away from the idea that those struggling are broken or have something wrong with them.
  • Show empathy – If a young person is feeling sad or going through something difficult, use phrases such as, “you deserve the best support for what you are going through.” Doing this shows that you understand what they are going through is hard and that you care.
  • Connect and listen – Hearing and listening are not the same thing. Actively listen to what the young person has to say. If they want to talk but can’t find the words, ask open-ended questions to help carry the conversation further.
  • Be a model – Share the healthy ways you cope with difficult feelings. Give youth space to express themselves and find an outlet to process their emotions.

Social Media and Youth Mental Health

There are a lot of issues impacting youth mental health and well-being today, social media being chief among them. Social media can be both positive and negative, and, as caring adults, it’s our job to help the youth in our lives develop social media habits that are safe and healthy. It’s important for adults to give youth space to express themselves and an outlet to process emotions. We can focus on that through a lens of responsible social media use that sets boundaries and mitigates exposure to harmful content or experiences. Follow youths’ lead and take their agency as paramount – listen to their concerns and allow them to lead discussions about social media.

Research suggests that social media experiences may have more of an impact on youth mental health than the amount of social media use. Cyberbullying, which can take place via computer, cell phone, or other electronic devices, has been up since the onset of the pandemic. It’s highest among younger adolescents (<15) and trans youth. Help the youth in your life foster safe and healthy online spaces for themselves by sharing these tips:

  • Check your mood before going on social media.
  • Protect your private information on public sites – avoid using your name, posting photos, etc.
  • Use the account and privacy settings within each device, app, or network to control who can contact and interact with you and who can read your online content.
  • Prioritize supportive friends, and unfriend/block/unfollow friends who can be toxic.
  • Develop a relationship with a parent/trusted adult to talk about online experiences.

Mental Health Exercises for In the Moment Support

As caring adults, we aim to provide support for young people at all times. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to always be physically present. Therefore, the next best thing to do is teach young individuals how to cope with challenging situations or mental health in the moment. When difficult situations arise, it can be hard for youth to remain present. Teaching these three grounding techniques will help them become less overwhelmed and more focused on what is happening around them.

  • 5,4,3,2,1 – This technique uses the five senses. Focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
  • 4-4-4 – This technique focuses on breathing. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4, and exhale for 4.
  • Focus on your feet – Take a mental note of how your feet feel. Can you feel your shoes? Are they on the ground? Wiggle your toes or count steps to become more grounded and aware.

It’s important to destigmatize mental health challenges, starting with open, honest conversations about mental health and well-being. Taking time to check in with the young people in your life and encouraging them to do regular check-ins with themselves – to assess their emotions and feelings – is a life skill that will serve them well throughout adolescence and into adulthood as they learn to navigate the challenges of life.

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