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Opinion

Opinion: PA leads the way in early mental health and wellness tools, access for young people

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By Bob McCullough,  Pennsylvania Capital-Star
November 28, 2023

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis here in the United States and young people, sadly, are not immune. The prevalence of mental health challenges for young people is well-documented, but access to mental health services remains extremely limited. The pandemic exacerbated mental health issues while decreasing access to care, compounding the complex problem.

Nearly every mental health statistic in the U.S. is quite grim. But for young people, in particular, it’s absolutely devastating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22% of high school students seriously considered suicide in the past year, 57% of teen girls feel “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 40% of parents are “very or extremely worried” about the mental health of their children, according to the CDC.

Even today, as we are out of the proverbial woods when it comes to the pandemic, every state in the country is experiencing a historic clinician shortage, Pennsylvania included. This shortage has impacted healthcare delivery in every field, but it’s particularly difficult for those seeking mental healthcare. There are not enough mental health professionals practicing today to address the need. Even when someone can access care, they can expect long waits with extremely limited appointment availability, and rigid approaches that may not suit the needs of young people.

And even if young people are able to break through all these barriers to care and access mental health wellness services or treatment, it’s in a reactive capacity, not preventative.

What if we could reach young people earlier – give them the tools they need to build resilience, deal with the ups and downs of life, to handle the pressure of the human experience, and the stress of global turmoil? What if we did that by meeting them exactly where they are?

In Pennsylvania, we’ve started to do just that, offering a glimmer of hope to an entire generation of young people who could otherwise get lost, not knowing where to turn to for mental health and wellness resources or – perhaps more importantly – if they could even benefit from them.

The Pennsylvania approach

Pennsylvania took a public-private partnership approach. Having a public partner is the only way we can ensure equitable access so that all young people can utilize our mental health and well-being tools, resources, and services. We are incredibly grateful to everyone in Pennsylvania who helped bring Kooth to young people – from our champions in Harrisburg to our 2,400 school board members across this great state – for recognizing how critical this issue is and for leading the country in addressing it. More than 100,000 students in Pennsylvania have access to Kooth through a partnership with the state that’s been rolled out in school districts across the state.

Our early results after just one year are remarkable, and here’s why it’s so effective: we specialize in developing products and services, designed with young people, to support their mental health and wellbeing.

After just one year, results demonstrate the impact of reaching students in Pennsylvania where they are:

  • 93% of students felt heard, understood, and respected
  • 91% of students found Kooth sessions helpful
  • 86% would recommend Kooth’s chat to a friend
  • 21% of students presented with a severe level of psychological distress, 24% presented with self-harm issues, and 59% presented with anxiety/stress
  • Though 65% of students feel like they need professional support, 63% do not feel comfortable speaking to friends or family about their mental wellbeing
  • 92% of school staff and school district staff members said digital services can support students’ mental wellbeing in their districts
  • 75% of principals and superintendents are confident or very confident that Kooth will improve the rapid escalation of support for students in crisis

Pennsylvania is at the forefront of addressing the youth mental health crisis and that’s something for which all Pennsylvanians can be proud. This program can be a model for other states, and while we have a lot of work left to do before we’ve reached every young person in the state, we can think of no better cause to support.

Bob McCullough is VP of Clinical Strategy, Kooth Digital Health

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.