Data recently released by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention presents a concerning picture of our youth’s mental health and well-being. The 2021 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey indicates that Maine youth’s mental health issues have become more severe over the past two years.

When asked “Do you agree or disagree that in your community you feel like you matter to other people?”, 54.8 percent of middle schoolers report that they feel they mattered, down from 59.4 percent in 2019. For high school students, only 51.5 percent of students said they mattered, down from 56.4 percent in 2019. The share of middle schoolers who reported that they “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities” was 29.6 percent, up from 24.8 percent in 2019. For high school students, 35.9 percent reported this sad or hopeless feeling, up from 32.1 percent in 2019. The proportion of high schoolers who say they have support from adults other than their parents is 46.7 percent, a significant decrease from 65.8 percent in 2017 and 50.7 percent in 2019, a troubling trend we need to reverse.

Our nation’s top health leaders are urging action in the face of a national youth mental health crisis. In October 2021, three national pediatric medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued a declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, followed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health.

Citing these statements and a trove of data highlighting the immense toll of the pandemic on youth mental health, agencies across the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services issued a joint letter to states, tribes and jurisdictions encouraging them to prioritize and maximize their efforts to strengthen children’s mental health and well-being. Across all organizations, the calls to action were clear and consistent: promote youth resilience at the family, school and community levels.

We must prioritize policies and programs for prevention to ensure resilience for our youth, families and communities. Fostering community resilience takes a coordinated, multi-sector approach. Community-developed strategies to promote resilience for health and social issues are entwined in economic development, supporting a thriving, prosperous community. Our future workforce depends on it.

We must commit to systems and policies that create supportive environments where youth can thrive and feel they matter. By working to create safe spaces and engaging in connection, every person in every community can have a positive impact on our youth.

Making a positive impact also requires addressing complex systemic challenges. We must invest not just funding but also time, energy and care to ensure that all Maine youth understand that they matter to their community. We must do so with youth engaged in the design. It’s up to us not to “make kids more resilient” but to ensure that the supports are there, so resilience is the supported, more accessible option. Governments, schools, businesses, and organizations must commit to supporting systems and policies to create environments where youth can thrive.

We need repair and recovery. But when it comes to the pandemic’s toll on youth mental health, that recovery must include prevention. Without it, we sustain the repair cycle – endlessly treating the fallout without addressing the systems, policies, and practices perpetuating the issue.

The Maine Resilience Building Network, with the Maine CDC and Public Health Partners, developed the “Maine Youth Thriving” guide for community action. The guide facilitates community-driven solutions to address protective factors and ensure a community environment that supports positive youth development and thriving. We look forward to working with communities to promote locally developed solutions so that we help youth to thrive and feel that they matter. The opportunity is before us. Let’s take it.

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