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A male youth in a counseling session with a therapist.

About Youth with Mental Health Needs

December 31, 2012 Fact Sheets

Youth with mental health needs (MHN) often face unemployment, underemployment, and discrimination when they enter the workforce. Employment data show that individuals with serious mental illness have the lowest level of employment of any group of people with disabilities. As a result, large numbers of youth with both diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health needs who are transitioning into young adulthood, to the world of work, and to postsecondary education are likely to experience significant difficulties. Learn more about Facts & Statistics, Common Challenges, and The Guideposts for Success.

Insuring that a young person is healthy and ready for work, independent living, and civic engagement is easier said than done. There is no coordinated system that guides youth through the process of becoming productive and self-sufficient members of society and the labor market. Pieces of the system exist, such as Career and Technical Education, transition planning under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and programs available through Vocational Rehabilitation and the Workforce Investment Act. Unfortunately, however, these services are often incomplete and uncoordinated – and therefore ineffective. Youth with educational and career challenges, such as those with mental health needs, too often fall off one of the cliffs between youth and adult systems or get shunted down an arbitrary or inappropriate service tunnel based on considerations dictated by the system rather than the youth’s wants and needs.

Facts & Statistics

  • According to the National Mental Health Information Center, population studies show that at any point in time, 10% to 15% of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression. The National Institute for Mental Health found that suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds, following unintentional injuries and homicide in 2002.
  • Youth with emotional disturbance in secondary schools had the highest percentage (44.8%) of negative consequences for their actions (i.e., were suspended, expelled, fired, or arrested) of any disability group in the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).
  • Students with emotional disabilities had a higher dropout rate than for any other single disability category in the NLTS2.
  • High school youth with emotional disabilities in the NLTS2 were more likely to be involved in bullying or fighting in school (42%) and to initiate bullying (36%) than the general population of youth with disabilities.
  • The National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice estimates that on any given day over 100,000 youth reside in juvenile detention and correctional facilities across the country. Existing data suggest that between 65% and 100% of these youth have a diagnosable mental disorder, and that approximately 20% have a serious mental health disorder.
  • The Northwest Foster Care Alumni study of over 600 foster care alumni revealed that 54.4% had a mental health disorder, including 25.2% with post-traumatic stress disorder, 20.1% with major depression, and 17.1% with social phobia.
  • There is a 90% unemployment rate among adults with serious mental illness, the worst level of employment of any group of people with disabilities according to the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.

Common Challenges

By the time youth enter their teen years, it is important that they learn about career options and opportunities. Yet for many youth who need mental health services during this time period, this is not likely to occur.  One reason for this is that many youth with mental health needs end up falling through the cracks of an uncoordinated and inadequate network of service delivery systems.  These youth frequently do not receive the types of coordinated comprehensive individualized services and supports they need to be successful in the workplace or productively participate in their communities.  Rather, because most agency staff thinks primarily of the set of solutions available within their own system of service delivery, youth with mental health needs are frequently shunted down inappropriate service tunnels dictated by their point of entry.

In addition to service tunnels, youth encounter a “transition cliff” when they age out of youth systems and attempt to access adult services. Many youth systems end at age 18 and others when the youth reaches age 22, which means a youth could simultaneously be a youth in one system and an adult in another. The adult systems of education, mental health, Social Security, vocational rehabilitation, and workforce development often have different terminology, eligibility requirements, and service options than those of the corresponding youth systems. This disconnect can result in dire consequences such as termination of services and lost progress in career planning.

Youth service practitioners in the workforce development system are responsible for supporting vulnerable youth; several of these targeted groups include many youth with mental health needs. Fortunately, there are a growing number of strategies and resources to support youth with mental health needs in achieving independence, self-sufficiency, and success in employment and postsecondary education.

Guideposts for Success for Youth with Mental Health Needs

The Guideposts for Success for Youth with Mental Health Needs are particularly helpful for youth service practitioners serving youth with MHN. Youth with mental health needs may not be properly diagnosed, if they are diagnosed at all, especially during the teenage years when it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between (1) a mental health issue; (2) typical anxiety experienced by youth, particularly if those feelings are not behaviorally expressed; and (3) substance abuse, which may be a secondary issue that many youth with mental health needs may experience. Youth with MHN may not have a stable base of support, or any support, which hampers their successful transition from adolescence to adulthood, especially given the stigma associated with mental illness.

The likelihood for economic stability and success is increased for youth with MHN if an intentional, integrated, and well-coordinated set of supports is in place, a sort of unconditional safety net. The Guideposts point the way to providing those supports.

The Guideposts for Success are a comprehensive framework that identifies what all youth, including youth with disabilities, need to succeed during the critical transition years. The five Guidepost areas of focus are:

  • School-based preparatory experiences
  • Career-preparation and work-based experiences
  • Youth development and leadership opportunities
  • Connecting activities (support and community services)
  • Family involvement and supports

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