Few of us have background memories of our teens, myself included. Now imagine being 16 again during a pandemic and not seeing your friends in person for more than a year. Plus, you’re glued to a device that tells you all about the bad things that happen in the world … or the amazing, healed lives that look so different than yours.
We know that teens face a growing mental health crisis and that this is a critical time to intervene. About half of all lifelong mental illnesses develop by age 14 and 75% by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Globally, depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents ages 15 to 19, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, this is a population struggling to access the care it needs. The percentage of young adults ages 18-25 with mental illness who receive mental health services is less than 40%, which is lower than older adults.
As a former journalist and now venture capitalist at OMERS Ventures focused on digital health, one of the biggest opportunities I see is partnering to serve our teens to help influence future outcomes.
“Gen Z is poised to have a huge impact on the healthcare system,” said Alyssa Jaffee, partner at 7wireVentures. “However, the system has largely ignored this generation believing they don’t care.” “The reality is that they worry a lot.”
There is room for a big impact because Gen Z doesn’t feel the same stigma around mental health as their parents.
A growing number of therapists are on TikTok talking to teens in a style they can relate to, which is removing some barriers to accessing care. And members of Gen Z, far more than Millennials, are speaking publicly about their own experiences receiving help.
Some say that this is a positive aspect of social media in their lives.
As Madison Campbell, founder of Leda Health, a company that works to prevent sexual assault, put it: “I think we live in a world where the culture is changing, at least among young women, to say ‘it’s great to go to therapy. “Campbell, a Generation Z founder in her 20s, said that if you scroll through platforms like TikTok, you’ll find hundreds of videos explaining terms like ‘gaslighting’, which refers to the act of undermining someone else’s reality by denying Facts … For her, that was a real lightbulb moment as she looked back at her own life and thought about her own experiences in a new way.
But smartphones can also serve as a rabbit hole.
“Our generation grew up around Snapchat and YouTube,” said Nathan, 17, a high school student from California. “As much as I hate these apps and want to let them go, I feel like I have to keep them because I need to communicate with my friends.”
Nathan said that when someone posts on Snapchat and Instagram, all they see is “the best looking people.” He said there is an expectation of “bodily perfection” that creates both insecurity and anxiety among teens.
Digital health entrepreneurs can use these platforms to reach young people that are not always a priority for traditional providers as young people are relatively healthy and have myriad privacy and consent complexities.
Young children have a single decision-maker; her parents, said Alex Alvarado, CEO of Daybreak Health, a company that helps teens struggling with anxiety and depression. In the case of teenagers, there are two consumers who make the decisions. “Any solution in the digital health space must be able to carefully balance both stakeholders,” he explained.
Another challenge is matching the teen to a provider who really understands.
Adolescents from rural areas, minorities, and / or those from the LGBTQ + community may struggle.
“LGBTQ + teens and youth of color have specific considerations, such as increased mental health stigma in some communities,” said Solome Tibebu, director of the Upswing Fund, which is dedicated to adolescent mental health.
To complicate matters, many states have different rules regarding the age of consent for seeking therapy. That includes consent related to medication and hospital treatment, says Dr. Monika Roots, an adolescent psychiatrist. And mental health providers must share certain information with parents for safety reasons. That requires a lot of transparency up front about the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality, he said.
Implementing solutions that work in this space is not easy. But without these tools in place, experts say it will be challenging for teens to recover from the pandemic. I suspect there will be a long-term impact for young people who have missed more than a year of face-to-face education, as well as a difficult transition for those who have become accustomed to attending school from home.
Studies are still being done to assess the long-term impact on behavioral health, but early surveys seem to indicate that many teens – and their parents – were deeply affected. For some children, school can be a scary place. But for others, particularly those who are experiencing domestic abuse or mental health problems, it is a safety net.
“If they bothered us, they were devastated, their worlds turned upside down,” said Steve Ramsland, a clinical psychologist and consultant for behavioral health companies.
Fortunately, this initial crop of companies like Daybreak is finding value in serving teens online and reaching them through their schools. Others, like Brightline Health and Ginger, are trying to serve this population in another new way, through their parents’ employer. One promising trend is that benefits teams are willing to pay for behavioral health services not just for employees, but for their children as well.
Ultimately, I hope to see many more teen businesses emerge in all of these areas: school-based, employer-driven, Medicaid-targeted, consumer-oriented, and much more. Frankly, we need it all.
As a new mother, I would love to see us do the work to make mental health services available to younger populations. Imagine the possibilities for our society if Gen Z is the first generation to gain access to mental health care early in their lives and speak openly about value without fear of judgment. We would all have a lot to learn from them.