Skip to main content

Tackling the youth mental health crisis

Insights from Dr. Yusra Benhalim­
Sr. National Medical Director, Optum Behavioral Health Solutions


Young people and those who care for them need our help

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I help children and families understand and manage mental health conditions and substance use disorders. As a senior national medical director at Optum Behavioral Health Solutions, I help put clinical puzzles together to create behavioral health solutions that connect children and families to the care they need.

Too often, however, both of these roles are keenly focused on addressing a crisis, rather than preventing one.

This challenge isn’t going away. As is widely documented and reported, American youth are increasingly struggling with their mental health and well-being. Late last year, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory calling “for a swift and coordinated response” to this mental health crisis.

Learning how to reach today’s youth

Driven to improve care options, we recently completed extensive research — including one-on-one interviews — to better understand the lives, needs, desires and values of youth ages 13-26 experiencing behavioral health symptoms, conditions and treatment.

One of the key things we learned is that traditional intervention paths and solutions aren't working for this generation as well as we had hoped:

  • Primary care physicians generally see young people too infrequently to identify mental health concerns, much less make referrals for them.
  • Teachers, coaches and other community leaders may have more interactions and influence with youth but are not always privy to such concerns or professionally equipped to address them.
  • Many youth say they're reluctant to confide in their parents and caregivers because they don’t want to burden them, fear they will overreact or don’t believe they can help.
  • From a social determinants of health perspective, many youth don't have assured access to one or any of the above.

Our research also revealed that when youth do seek care, they expect those experiences to be tailored to their specific needs and wants. From their perspective, they know it when they see it, and are otherwise suspicious of those they believe lack authenticity and could be motivated by self-interest.

However, when youth say they feel seen, heard and validated, they are more likely to trust another person. But for most, this means keeping only a select, close circle of confidantes that rarely includes designated conventional caregivers.

Compounding these challenges, the world has changed. Youth no longer need to rely on their caregivers or nearby community resources for support and information. Instant access to a global network allows them to easily circumvent traditional pathways in search of validation, answers and support online. Unfortunately, a quick search may or may not take them to legitimate or credible sources of information critical to their health and well-being.

Developing new ways to make a difference

The good news is that innovative help is on the way. At Optum, we're leveraging the results of our in-depth research and analysis to design new pathways to connect with and engage children, adolescents and young adults through the people, places and things they interact with and trust.

By earning their trust and creating new support systems that meet them where they are, we can make the most difference in the right ways.

We value your role in helping children and their families access the behavioral health solutions they need. For a preview of the intervention opportunities our research revealed, download our report.

About the author

Dr. Yusra Benhalim
Psychiatrist, Sr. National Medical Director, Optum Behavioral Health Solutions

Dr. Yusra Benhalim is a triple board-certified psychiatrist in adult, child and adolescent, and addiction psychiatry. In her role, she focuses on enhancing the clinical enablement of innovative and effective solutions that meet the current and future needs of people across the country. With a focus on helping patients connect with their well-being and health outcomes, Dr. Benhalim helps create clinically focused, human-centered solutions, perspectives and best practices to facilitate a seamless and effective engagement experience.

See how Optum can help support well-being and mental health