When you watch the news or follow current events, stories about the adolescent psychiatric crisis shape how you think about young people — and how young people think about themselves.
Young people face challenges with mental health, it is urgent and we must act seriously. But the science of framing—the study of how the choices we make when presenting information affect how people think, feel, and act—tells us that the crisis story we are told can backfire and lead to unintended negative consequences that reinforce stereotypes and block change.
There are four problems with the narrative of the adolescent mental health crisis.
First, it paralyzes us by focusing our attention on the immensity of the problem without helping us see what we can do to solve it. The current crisis framing leaves people worried, sad and overwhelmed – but ultimately incapacitated because the problem feels too big.
The fact that crises are ubiquitous these days only makes the problem worse, drawing on our robust sense of crisis fatigue. If all people hear is the magnitude of the problem, is it reasonable to expect them to come up with solutions?
Second, the crisis narrative promotes already pernicious stereotypes of young people as troubled teenagers and adolescence — the developmental phase between ages 10 and 25 — as an inevitably dangerous time. The unbalanced negativity of the crisis narrative, with its almost exclusive focus on suicide rates and violent behavior issues, blocks the way to support positive development — by increasing access to enriching activities, expanding eligibility for family therapy, providing robust school health services, or taking steps to counteract it Tackling systemic racism, for example – is essential to building mental health.
Third, while this crisis narrative can raise awareness of the issue, research shows that awareness is not enough and can backfire. More awareness of what is considered insurmountable is not helpful. Instead, the story must be explained. When people understand how things work, they are better able to generate and evaluate solutions.
Finally, the history of the crisis draws our attention to how to deal with problems that already exist. Adolescent mental health needs to be built proactively, not repaired retrospectively.
So what is the alternative to this crisis story?
Our research tells us that in order to inspire action and change, we need to move from a narrative that is depressing and detaching to one that provides an accurate and motivating sense of what is possible.
It is not about glossing over the difficulties young people face. The aim is to draw a balanced picture that contains potential for action to improve the lives and experiences of young people.
– Balancing stories of the urgency of the challenges young people face with those that demonstrate their need for environments that allow them to explore their identities, make a difference in the world, and have close and trusting relationships with adults build up.
– Narratives that include more about adolescent development and how it functions. A better picture of how young people experience development—what develops, through what types of experiences, and with what impacts—would allow us to understand how our health systems can support young people’s well-being. A better understanding of how brain development supports social learning helps us see the importance of young people having opportunities to navigate complex and meaningful relationships with peers and adults.
– Stories about what promotes mental health and well-being, not just what threatens it.
– Content that portrays young people as active characters with agency and control. These stories must lead us to recognize the need for young people’s voices to inform the policies that affect them. Developmental science and young people themselves tell us that young people are not passive actors in their mental health, but rather need to experience agency, control and power in their lives.
This new narrative is about balancing risk and opportunity. It’s about mental health and what challenges it. It’s about the role of agency and discovery in driving development. It’s about the need to change our policies and systems so that young people live in places where they have opportunities to engage with communities, take healthy risks, and build relationships with peers and adults. It is about the support that all young people need but few get.
Young people don’t have to be our next crisis – but they need us to make it better. We can start changing our history.
Nat Kendall-Taylor is a psychological anthropologist and CEO of the FrameWorks Institute.
Andrew J. Fuligni is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA and Co-Executive Director of the Center for the Developing Adolescent.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.