The State of Mental Health for America's Youth

By Lawrence FunderburkeMay 17, 202417 Minutes

The State of Mental Health for America's Youth

Why They're Hurting, How We Can Help Them, and Where to Start First

Don’t be troubled by the length of this article; it’s a fast read about a very troubling subject. Brevity won’t do it justice.

A lot of young people are struggling in a major way, though few care to admit it. Their upstairs and downstairs brains are skipping floors. Upstairs deals primarily with the cerebral cortex, or what occupies roughly 80 percent of the top floor brain and nearly 100 billion neurons. Downstairs refers to the gastrointestinal tract, with approximately 100 million neurons occupying the bottom floor brain. Newbie minds with topsy-turvy bellies as well as rollercoaster hearts are in a state of flux. Whether mentally, emotionally, or relationally when it comes to the wellness factor, the trend is not their friend. Not even close. Covid did exacerbate problematic distress states, but let’s be clear. Many under the age of 25 were hurting long before the pandemic hit the scene and shook us to the core. As the rise in social media addictions captured their hearts, the drop in wellbeing broke their spirits. Has this inverse relationship been a mere coincidence? I don’t think so. One thing is certain, however: Mental illness is an equal-opportunity disruptor. Doesn’t matter how much (or little) money you have, nor the pigmentation of your skin. When it hits, you feel it. Your inner and outer circles do as well. And society pays a heavy price to curb that pain. Depression. Bipolar and autism-spectrum disorders. PTSD. Anxiety and panic attacks. Compulsive behaviors. Drug and alcohol addiction. Self harm, suicidal ideation, and homicidal inclinations. Now, why would our young people be in the fight of their mental sanity lives with the whole world in front of them? I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but let’s explore some of them.

Correlation doesn’t equal causation but it should lead to contemplation. 

Why are our young people hurting so much? 

Lots of reasons exist, but the driving force behind (or in front of) their pain and suffering is a depleted or bloated biochemical system. Too little or too much of any feel-good neurotransmitter isn’t good for the body, brain, or belly. And the five emotional needs that play a pivotal role in balancing the biochemical ledger account (BLA) include the following: to be loved, to be heard, to be understood, to be respected, and to be seen. “To be loved” has everything to do with the oxytocin system, the body’s loving, trusting, and bonding apparatus. Love is a feeling wrapped in the customized gift of care, concern, and compassion. It’s an action word that’s impossible to express or experience without tangible proof. No verifiable evidence, no authentic love. It is the litmus test by which commitment to wellbeing is (and should be) measured. When youth and young adults don’t feel loved, they can’t outwardly express lovingkindness in the world. Unfortunately, many of them don’t even feel lovable enough to embrace genuine affection given our AI-generated world.

Next up is “to be heard.” The voice of the voiceless is yearning to be heard, not judged (although accountability is critical for proper growth). Listening is truly a lost art. Active listeners pick up on the cues and clues of the speaker, notably what is said and how it sounds. Semantics deal with what is said, while acoustics serve as the amplifying pitch or diminishing cadence behind someone’s phonetic words. Pay careful attention to a young person’s verbs, adverbs, and proverbs. A verb indicates an action, event, or state of being. What does this person need, want, or expect?  An adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb, or various other types of words, phrases, or clauses. Usually ending in “ly,” adverbs can often express the magnitude of a young person’s condition or outlook from a pain, pleasure, or passive perspective. A proverb is a condensed or shorten saying that conveys some important fact of experience that is taken as true by a person, group, or community. For youth still reeling from the effects of trauma, their proverb can serve as a motivating force or debilitating course in every aspect of life. It just depends on how they’re wired.

“To be understood” isn’t the same as being heard. Complements or close allies, yes, but substitutes or synonyms, no. Perhaps the biggest mistake Generation X and Baby Boomers make is superimposing their era’s customs and traditions as the de facto norm for success in 21st century America. Now, principles are timeless but practices may change. What worked then may be outdated today, especially when life was much slower in decades past. What seasoned adults do wrong is pull young people back to the good ole days instead of jump forward to greet them in these hectic, fast-paced times. Understanding is about being heard (and hopefully treated) on equal footing. This was not the case in the ’50s, ’60s, or even ’70s. Youth weren’t heard, nor understood; they deferred to their elders because that was standard protocol. Today’s young people expect sensitivity from those advanced in years, which can harmonize or balance their gyrating emotional state.

Young people are sick and tired of the disrespect. “To be respected” is what they demand from peers and progenitors in private places or public spaces. Seasoned adults have called them lazy, indifferent, and delusional. They have been told in corporate settings, “You can’t be pushed to the front of the promotion line without waiting your turn. That’s not how it works here in moving up the C-suite ladder!” Young people also feel that older generations don’t believe in them, and that passing the responsibility baton to Millennials will result in a dropped opportunity. So, they feel unfairly judged, mistreated, and maligned for their youthfulness. Of course, age discrimination works both ways. Thus, disrespect can lead to anger, disdain, or outright rejection of the principles, practices, and procedures that have defined the success path of previous generations. Not surprisingly, their mental, emotional, and relational wellbeing has taken a beaten. Unfortunately, some NextGen cohorts do fall in line and fall in love with the prophecy that has been said about them. That they play video games all day, surf the Internet for clickbait gutter stories, and party well in to the night using borrowed credit cards (while disrupting their precious circadian rhythm in the process).

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it requires a community to repair a broken soul.

Fighting for attention is the right “to be seen.” Doesn’t matter if it’s through toxic attitudes, desperate measures, or counterproductive efforts. This is a self-image play, which is usually tied to a self-preservation ploy. The result? A survival of the fittest mentality hellbent on relevancy. Earning street cred, increasing followers on social media, or accentuating a body part, piercing, or tattoo for brand identification purposes is par for the course today with our young people as well as those who refuse to grow up. Extended adolescence is not a good thing in your 30s, 40s, and 50s. You see, I’ve worked with over 30,000 youth and young adults over the past two decades. In short, here’s what I’ve observed about this demographic. Their covert or overt approval-seeking behaviors are easy to spot, with validation expressions being the prized possessions to hide their deficits. I speak from personal experience, and they’re incredibly difficult to break free from when hangups, holdups, and hiccups are trauma based. On the nonprofit side, I’m usually asked to work with and fix broken souls. Think Kia Boys. Paternal abandonment and testosterone surges during puberty that fuel their desire to pursue novelty-seeking thrill rides with little (to no) regard for consequences are driving their behaviors. In general, Kia Boys come from fatherless homes, aren’t involved in organized sports (and miss out on surrogate, father-figure coaching), and could care less about academic achievements. On the for-profit side, I work with companies in a variety of areas, notably group collaboration, leadership development, and DE&I offerings. In most cases, how colleagues are viewed and valued play the biggest role in how they perform in a solo or team-based setting. Doesn’t matter their position, age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Remember my reference to oxytocin a bit earlier? Receptors for this neuropeptide are found in the eyes, among other places throughout the body. And whatever we give our continual gaze to we typically bond with or find value in. So don’t be stingy with your eyeball hugs of affirmation, appreciation, and acceleration, the AAA boost that can prevent our young people from needing roadside assistance. Got it?

How can we help young people get ahead in our fall behind world? 

If you’re a seasoned adult, alright, over the age of 40, don’t take this too personal. But youthful souls with inquisitive minds are wondering, “Will the real adults please stand up because the cardboard cutouts in the corner don’t count.” They’re confused. They see the outlines of people in grownup bodies acting in childish, really cartoonish, ways. No need for Tom and Jerry reruns with our current cast of adult caricatures. Our political scene is polarizing (and sure to get much worse as election season rolls and roles around later this year). Our sociopolitical system can’t agree on the definition of “fairness for all,” especially when the privileged few call the shots. Our geopolitical situation is a hot mess, home and abroad. What’s left just might be the right thing for young people to do. Sit on the sidelines as the apolitical majority. What choice(s) are we leaving them to make? Here’s how we help our young people, and it isn’t rocket science but common sense. Be the example before we ask them to follow it. Practice what we preach. Walk the talk. Nothing more, nothing less. And this has everything to do with a profound sense of purpose, which is highlighted next.


Where do we start first in our advocacy of NextGen’s mental wellness?

Where we start first in helping our young people should lead to the end of the matter — a purpose-centered existence.  Purposeful people don’t have time for childish, blaming-framing-shaming games. Too much is on the line to get distracted by such foolishness. When youth and young adults understand the essence of purpose (with an emphasis on personal branding as the intro), every aspect of their lives can change for the better. But when their purpose is unclaimed, they’re shortchanged by life. And when purpose is unanswered, they will shortchange others throughout life. Productivity and conductivity are two residual benefits of purpose-led individuals. They’re more efficient and effective in connecting with others. Guess what other benefits are in store? A sense of purpose has a profound impact on mood and overall wellbeing. Young people will sleep better. They will cope smarter. They’ll live longer (People Who Feel They Have A Purpose In Life Live Longer, NPR, Patti Neighmond). And a life assignment can provide them with a natural high that weed –– or any drug or drink for that matter –– can never top. In fact, they likely won’t have a taste for that puff puff or pop pop (as in pills) anymore given their newfound state of bliss. Check this out: a life without purpose is an existence devoid of meaning. Sounds harsh, I know. Here’s my definition of purpose:

In closing, an investment secured will satisfy a payment made, but a payment made is not equal to an investment secured. Payments are tied to accumulated debts, while targeted investments can produce lucrative returns. Yes, ROI. As my good friend, an entrepreneur and PGA tour golfing coach, Jerry Hammond Jr. likes to say, “We need to be counted on and accounted for.” So much is riding on our ability to prioritize the mental health of younger generations. We can pay now, so they can play later. Or we can play now, but they’ll pay later. And when we see a need but don’t fulfill it, a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process. Let’s do our part in giving an assist to the next generation. Why? Because our legacy is attached to theirs. Lastly, I’ll be the featured speaker at Sow Plated’s Live Sow Well Speakers Series this Monday, May 20th, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. Located in Upper Arlington, this is our (my wife Monya and I) favorite restaurant in Central Ohio. Seating is limited; click the link to secure your spot. Bon appetit to great mental health!