The burden of mental illness, particularly in youth, is a growing public health crisis. The good news is that the stigma around mental illness is diminishing. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I believe it is time to shift our focus from treating illnesses to building “mental fitness,” thereby reversing the alarming rise in mental health disorders among youth.
Psychiatric illnesses affect as many as 1 in 4 children and teenagers. Yet most psychiatric illness in youth today is preventable.
Mental fitness is the “big idea” that could define new strategies for overcoming the youth mental health crisis. To appreciate its potential, consider the physical fitness trend. Over several decades, physical fitness has become a movement that has contributed to fewer deaths from heart disease and longer life expectancy.
What physical fitness does for the body, mental fitness can do for the mind – helping it to handle anxiety, uncertainty and sadness. It’s also the fertile soil in which meaningful lives can grow, improving well-being beyond simply preventing illness.
The foundational skills of self-awareness and self-regulation are the building blocks of mental fitness. With help from caring adults, children naturally develop the ability to recognize and manage their thoughts and impulses. These skills help them build nurturing relationships and healthy habits around sleep, exercise, eating and relaxing. They build these skills each time they experience a small difficulty (boredom, hurt feelings, a broken toy). This prepares them to expand these skills when facing bigger challenges (a breakup, exam or college rejection).
As a parent, I have felt the impulse to respond to discomfort in my kids’ lives by trying to eliminate it. But that leaves children less equipped to face challenges and more vulnerable to anxiety. Our role as parents is to support and cheerlead as our children face challenges, and give them confidence in their capacity to face and manage disappointments.
How to put this into practice? First, we need to make the concept of mental fitness part of the broader public conversation. Mental fitness gives agency to our kids by recognizing that getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is part of growing up.
Second, community engagement is paramount. We must enlist pediatricians, educators and parent groups in the mental fitness movement, creating open dialogue with young people before they have issues.
Finally, we need to make more effective use of online resources, and provide families and kids with easy-to-understand information.
Most mental illnesses in youth can be prevented, but not all. Conditions such as schizophrenia, mood disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder still require early recognition and effective care. Mental illness must be treated, while mental fitness must be built. I am confident we have it in our power to do both.