As the pandemic eased in fall 2022 and life in the United States began its return to “normal,” there was an expectation — and hope — that the mental health challenges facing U.S. teenagers and their parents would begin to recede. However, new data shows that despite some improvements, overall mental health issues remain.
The number of teenagers experiencing mental health challenges, with or without a behavioral health diagnosis is concerning. In fact, new research by Economist Impact, commissioned by The Cigna Group, found that nearly half (47%) of the 1,500 U.S. parents of teenagers ages 13 to 17 say their child is experiencing mental health challenges.
The survey, “The U.S. youth mental health crisis demands a community response,” points to the many hurdles that parents confront when trying to get mental health care for teens. Chief among them are overcoming the stigma associated with behavioral health issues, the complexities of the health care system, and accessing affordable, timely services.
The key insight from the findings: It will take a village to better support parents in helping their children.
“While progress has been made in recognizing the importance of supporting youth mental health, there is an urgent need for innovative approaches and collaborative efforts,” said Eva Borden, president of behavioral health at Evernorth, the health services division of The Cigna Group. “Addressing the mental health crisis among young people requires working together to address the complex challenges of youth mental health. This includes developing new and effective interventions and fostering partnerships between mental health professionals, educators, community organizations, employers, and policymakers.”
Stigma, access, and a complex system remain barriers to behavioral health care
Despite an increase in awareness around youth mental health and improved availability of resources that expand access to care, parents still list stigma as a top barrier to care for their children. In our study, 50% of parents who have a child with a mental health diagnosis said they experience stigma or their child feels embarrassed or ashamed, down from 57% last year.
Parents are seeking help but are having trouble finding it: 45% say there is a lack of information about available resources for mental health care. That number increases dramatically to 59% among parents of a child with a mental health diagnosis. Additionally, half of the parents surveyed said they do not know what help their child needs.
In 2022, 60% of parents indicated they experienced difficulty finding a trusted mental health provider for their teen. While that number is down year over year, almost half (46%) of all parents surveyed in 2023 said they struggle to find the right provider for their teen. Perhaps more telling is that 6 in 10 parents (61%) whose teens have a mental health diagnosis report having trouble finding care. Again, these are parents who are actively seeking help for a child in distress.
“We need to do better as a health care industry around early identification and building personalized care journeys that help match patients with the providers best suited to treat their condition,” Borden said. “It requires more personalized and precise navigation of care. Removing the guesswork, coupled with clinical support and data, can help us as an industry stay ahead of serious behavioral health needs.”
A community-based approach to behavioral health care
When asked about offerings that would have the greatest overall positive impact on teens’ mental health, it is no surprise that access to resources for group, family, or individual therapy topped the list, with 37% indicating this would be helpful.
However — perhaps because of the barriers they’ve encountered — parents are also receptive to getting help for their teens outside of a therapist’s office. More than a quarter (27%) of parents believe that community-driven programs, education and awareness campaigns to draw attention to teen mental health issues can have a positive impact.
This is an opportunity for business and community leaders to work together to take a more active role in addressing the youth mental health crisis — and in doing so, they will be investing in the future American workforce as well as the current workforce.
Our research finds that more than 1 in 4 parents (27%) are looking to their employers and within their communities to find mentorship, apprenticeship, and internship programs for their teens. Parents are also looking to community organizations and programs for help. For example, 36% are looking to athletic programs and an additional 34% have looked to youth organizations such as the YMCA or Boys and Girls Clubs.
“By viewing youth mental health as a collective responsibility, employers and communities can work toward creating a future where young people have the support, resources, and understanding they need to thrive,” Borden said. “Only through sustained commitment, collaboration, and a culture of prioritizing mental well-being can we effectively tackle the mental health epidemic and build a healthier future for all.”
The youth mental health crisis demands a community response
New research explores community efforts to support teen mental health and identifies current challenges facing parents and their children.