Closing The Access Gap: Forum’s Congressional Briefing on Youth Mental Health

Across the United States, young people are facing a well-documented mental and behavioral health crisis in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In its Protecting Youth Mental Health Advisory, the U.S. Surgeon General identifies “a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health,” evidenced by significant increases in rates of anxiety, depression, and other psychological health disorders among youth. The Advisory notes that this harm is especially acute for youth who were already experiencing disproportionate rates of mental health distress before the pandemic, including youth of color, Indigenous youth, LGBTQ+ youth, those involved with the justice and child welfare systems, low-income youth, and youth in rural areas. Although there is much evidence about the increasing number of young people struggling with their mental health, there is still a gap in providing young people with the tools and resources they need.

As the Forum for Youth Investment continues its dedication to youth mental health and well-being, we celebrated this year’s ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ by convening a Congressional Briefing on Youth Mental Health targeting Congressional and Federal agency staff, researchers, national youth advocates, and philanthropic leaders. The briefing included a panel discussion centered on ways to ensure equitable access to mental health services, strategies for practitioners and policymakers to work together in developing programs, and successful messaging and social strategies used to reduce the mental health stigma.

The briefing panel, hosted by the Forum and our longstanding partner, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, highlighted the ways young people, community-based organizations, and policymakers have worked collaboratively to provide resources and increased access to mental health support for young people and their families. The robust panel discussion, moderated by Tralonne Shorter (EVP of Policy and Government Affairs), included Dr. Kim Robinson (EVP of Youth Program Quality for the Forum for Youth Investment), Andy Bischel (President and CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada-BGCSNV), Dr. Megan Freeman (Senior Mental Health Consultant), and Julian Baro (Youth Researcher). The panel amplified several key takeaways:

Access Is Crucial: With the success that BGCSNV has seen from their collaboration with Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Andy Bischel provided insight on how essential cross-system and cross-sector partnerships are in navigating access. Through the success of their clubs becoming fully credentialed to bill Medicaid, Andy detailed ways they have integrated mental and behavioral health support across the clubs that support youth and their families.

Positive Youth Development Works: Positive Youth Development programs aim to develop and enhance the positive characteristics of individuals and their surrounding context. As programs look to address the mental health issues of young people, it is important to focus on four core elements that are foundational to positive youth development: environments that are safe, supportive, interactive, and engaging. Dr. Robinson shared how the Forum for Youth Investment’s approach to program improvement provides young people with networks of supportive adults and opportunities for connection.

Policy and Funding Remedies in Removing Barriers to Access: There are many barriers to accessible, comprehensive, and affordable mental health care. Julian detailed state legislation passed in 2023 that will improve access to mental health care. As programs and policymakers look into making mental health services more accessible, it should be a priority to focus on implementing policy recommendations within the following categories: Mental Health Workforce, Parity, Leveraging Medicaid and Private Health Insurance, Medication Access, Telehealth, and Statewide Systems Planning. Dr. Freeman added that telehealth services should be made available in community spaces and local areas.

The congressional briefing ended with a call to action from our panelists with key policy recommendations: (1) provide clear guidance and support to states to expand youth mental health in community-based settings; (2) provide technical assistance and investment for states to scale youth mental health service delivery systems; (3) increase funding for accessible, community-based care settings; and (4) streamline and simplify provider credentialing.