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Disconnected Youth: a Geographic View into the Youth Mental Health Crisis

· Suicide Prevention


The Youth Mental Health Crisis

Young people in America are facing a mental health crisis. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Summary Report, the percentage of high school students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 28% in 2011 to 42% in 2021. This trend is particularly concerning for female youth, for whom 57% reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021. This is a dramatic increase from 36% of female youth in 2011.

Source: CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey Summary Report

The cause of the youth mental health crisis is almost certainly multi-faceted and it can be complicated to make direct connections to any individual causal factor. Some focus has been on the effects of the pandemic with school lockdowns and social isolation, however, there is clear evidence that the negative trends in youth mental health predate the onset of the pandemic.

A lot of recent attention has been on the mental health impacts of teen use of digital technologies specifically social media. In May of this year, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health which stated “We cannot conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.” A few of the risks to youth cited in the advisory were (1) that those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of mental health problems including symptoms of depression and anxiety; and (2) that 46% of adolescents said social media makes them feel worse about their body image. In October, 33 states filed a lawsuit in federal court against Meta Platforms, claiming that the company deliberately designed features on Instagram and Facebook that addict adolescents to their platforms despite knowing about the negative effects that the platforms can have on youth mental health, specifically body image issues in teen girls.

Disconnected Youth: A Particularly Vulnerable Population

The term Disconnected Youth has been around for a while, but it does not describe youth who are “disconnected” digitally (in terms of access to the internet, devices, etc.). Rather it generally refers to young people who are socially and economically disconnected because they are not actively engaged in any kind of education, employment, or training. Youth disconnection has been linked with the following outcomes – higher unemployment, lower educational attainment, higher risk of substance abuse and mental health issues, higher likelihood of involvement in criminal activities and incarceration, social isolation, overall poor health, and early mortality. Because this population is socially isolated due to their lack of engagement with traditional social institutions (schools, workplaces, etc.), they may also be more reliant on and heavy users of social media. And, in turn, exposed to some of the associated mental health risks that come with prolonged use of social media.

Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council has been producing reports on Disconnected Youth for over a decade. While the national rate of Disconnected Youth had been steadily falling between 2010 and 2019 in the wake of the Great Recession, that trend was reversed in 2020 as the impacts of the pandemic were felt by young students and workers. For 2020, the rate of Disconnected Youth stood at 12.6%. The rate of youth disconnection can vary based on race and ethnicity, gender and place.

Source: Measure of America, A Disrupted Year: How the Arrival of Covid-19 Affected Youth Disconnection

Using Disconnected Youth Data in PolicyMap

PolicyMap recently added indicators from the Census ACS related to Disconnected Youth. The specific indicators show the estimated percent of people 16 to 19 years old who were not enrolled in school and were unemployed or not in the labor force. The indicators are also available for young men and young women. It’s worth noting that certain definitions of Disconnected Youth use people between the ages of 16 and 24 (this is the age range used by Measure of America) while others use people between 16 and 19 years old, which is the population age range available in the Census ACS data.

The map below shows youth disconnection for counties in New Mexico, one of the states with the highest rates of Disconnected Youth. In the dark purple counties, more than 15% of young people were not active in any form of education, employment, or training.

You can also view the Disconnected Youth indicators alongside other data readily available from the PolicyMap data library to better understand the communities in which these populations live. For example, add on the boundaries of tribal areas to see where high rates of youth disconnection overlap with tribal communities. Native American youth have the highest rate of disconnection (23.4%) compared to any other racial/ethnic group according to Measure of America.

Understanding the community context and other contributing factors for areas with high rates of Disconnected Youth can help in crafting intervention strategies that are more targeted and regionally appropriate.

You can similarly add on locations of potential partner organizations such as community colleges (represented as orange stars in the map below) and nonprofits that work in youth development (teal circles). Identifying organizations located in areas with high youth disconnection can help to spark the kind of cross-sector collaboration that is needed to support this vulnerable population.

Addressing the youth mental health crisis is critical for the future of the current generation of young people and for the nation as a whole. Our youth need adequate support now to reduce current mental health challenges to set off on the right path for success in adulthood. Using the Disconnected Youth indicators in PolicyMap can allow organizations doing important work on the ground to identify particularly at-risk populations, target interventions, and identify cross-sector partnerships.

Find the Disconnected Youth indicators in PolicyMap in the Education menu under School Enrollment. Because these are also leading indicators of negative health outcomes, Disconnected Youth is also featured in our recently released Social Determinants of Health Data Collection.

This article was originally published at