An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Panelists discuss youth mental health crisis (video)

Top row: Ryan Flannery, K Foley. Bottom row: Anna Kennedy, Kim McDevitt. (Sources: Provided)

“We need to build relationships again,” Kim McDevitt said.

McDevitt, the executive director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County, was speaking Tuesday during a panel discussion on “Promoting Student Mental Health and Wellbeing.” Held online via Zoom, it was the latest “Conversation About OUR Community,” a series hosted by United Way of Lancaster County.

McDevitt and her fellow mental health professionals said they are dealing with a significant upsurge in anxiety, depression and other disorders among teenagers.

Last year, the youth mental health nonprofit Touchstone Foundation conducted a countywide needs assessment, surveying parents, youths and caregivers. Anna Kennedy, the organization’s executive director, kicked off the forum with a review of the findings.

(Source: Touchstone Foundation)

They show more young people reporting feelings of sadness or worthlessness and more parents reporting concerning behaviors. A quarter of students reported being bullied and close to a third of parents said their children are bullied or excluded by their peers twice a month or more.

“This is really concerning,” Kennedy said.

While about 11% of parents said their children “always” feel sad or unhappy, a comparable state study found more than a third of students reporting such feelings, indicating a disconnect between parents and their children, Kennedy said.

Kennedy and McDevitt believe a significant portion of the problem can be attributed to two factors: The pandemic and the rise of social media. Social distancing interrupted normal in-person interactions; the use of social media, meanwhile, is correlated with increased teen depression and anxiety.

From ages 12 to 17, adolescents are going through a rapid period of development as they transition to adulthood, said Ryan Flannery, a school psychologist with the School District of Lancaster. They’re becoming more intensely peer-oriented, he said, and social media feeds into that, intensifying the comparison of oneself with others and impacting mental health.

For LGBTQ+ youth, the current situation is dire, said K Foley, executive director of the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition.

Three local trans youths have committed suicide recently, most recently Ashton Clatterbuck. Nationwide, Foley noted, there are 479 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There are people very openly, and locally, discussing whether or not we have a right to exist,” she said. “… LGBTQ+ youth and trans and nonbinary youth are directly under attack.”

Crafting solutions

In the interviews and focus groups Touchstone conducted with teens, many expressed a desire for mentors: Adults with whom they could share activities and talk informally about their lives and concerns.

In response, Touchstone has launched the Youth Mentor Partnership, which will provide grants for mentor training. Touchstone is reviewing the applications and plans to announce funding awards June 1.

Click to enlarge. (Source: Touchstone Foundation)

Meanwhile, Touchstone has been hosting “Rise Above” youth summits, which bring young people and mental health professionals together to discuss self-care and self-advocacy. Students insisted they be held in-person, not virtually, and they’ve participated enthusiastically, Kennedy said.

“I think it’s encouraging to hear the young people ask for deeper, more meaningful conversations with each other,” she said.

Click to enlarge. (Source: Touchstone Foundation)

Asked about bullying, Flannery said it’s a complex issue: Students can be afraid to report it for fear of retaliation. SDL offers a number of mediation programs, he said, which have shown success in resolving bullying and getting students to the point where they can coexist.

McDevitt said lack of funding is preventing her organization and others from expanding at the scale that’s needed. “We need more services to treat youth that are really struggling,” she said.

The LGBTQ+ Coalition has been launching or expanding numerous programs, Foley said: A behavioral health clinic, an affirming sex education group, support groups, shelter housing. (United Way of Lancaster County is supporting the coalition with a $25,000 2023-24 Level Up & Launch grant.)

The panelists agreed there is less stigma than there used to be around mental illness and seeking help. The stigma that remains tends to be among parents and caregivers, not young people themselves. One challenge for the LGBTQ+ community, is to build greater empathy among people in positions of power, Foley said, those who set policy and direct funding.

Religious leaders have an important role to play, the panelists said. MHA hosted a pair of breakfasts last spring to engage local faith groups on mental health awareness, McDevitt said, and 11 of them have formed mental health committees or missions teams.

Faith leaders need to take a stand against conservative religious opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, Foley said: “Religious freedom does not mean a veil for hate.”

The panelists encouraged their audience to advocate for more public mental health funding, and to support young people as they explore their interests and develop interpersonal skills.

And to listen.

“Just listen,” Kennedy said. “… Just listening to our young people is really mostly what they’re asking for.”