Mirroring a national trend, 45% of California youth between the ages of 12 and 17 report having recently struggled with mental health issues, with nearly a third of them experiencing serious psychological distress that could interfere with their academic and social functioning, according to a brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
The reporting rates are higher for certain segments of the adolescent population, including poor, multiracial, gender-nonconforming and foreign-born young people. “With almost half of California’s adolescents experiencing moderate to serious psychological distress, there is an urgent need to protect their psychological and emotional well-being by addressing the structural and social factors related to inequities in mental health,” says D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, PhD, a research scientist at the center.
Using data from the center’s 2019 California Health Interview Survey, the study authors looked at social determinants of health — non-medical factors such as family income, insurance, race and ethnicity, and citizenship status — to determine which adolescents were most affected by mental health distress. They also examined the impact of adolescents’ physical health and behavior in areas such as eating habits, physical activity, social media use and substance use, including drinking and smoking.
They found that 58% of adolescents whose family incomes were below the federal poverty level reported moderate to serious psychological distress in the past year — the highest across all income groups. Adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 were more likely to report serious psychological distress than 12-to-14-year-olds. Female adolescents were one-and-a-half times more likely than males to report experiencing serious psychological distress, as were gender-nonconforming teens in comparison with gender-conforming teens. Adolescents born outside the U.S. were more likely to report serious psychological distress than U.S.-born adolescents, and nearly 43% of adolescents who identified as multiracial said they had experienced serious psychological distress — the highest among all racial and ethnic groups.
If not treated early and properly, the researchers stress, mental health problems can seriously impair a youth’s progress socially and academically and have long-lasting negative consequences in adulthood. It is imperative, they say, to increase access to mental health treatments for all adolescents and to improve preventive measures for those groups at particularly high risk.
The study authors urge federal, state and local policymakers, and those who work with adolescents and their families, to address these inequities and boost access to mental health services. “Addressing these needs using a multifaceted approach enables service providers and other people in the adolescents’ networks to help prevent issues of psychological distress — not only through treatment, but by placing aid in the settings that adolescents are already present in,” says Blanche Wright, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in clinical psychology.
— Elaiza Torralba