America Is Losing One of Its Most Precious Assets: Our Brain Power

Becoming a father has profoundly sharpened my perspective on a pressing issue facing young Americans: The deteriorating mental health trends among teenagers, especially girls, in the U.S. This concern is personal. As an Australian, the American epidemic of gun violence, unique in its scale and impact on youth, both horrifies and confuses me. But this is just one facet of a more significant and more ominous threat to our future – the erosion of youth brain capital.

Youth brain capital is an economic asset akin to the infrastructure of roads and bridges – arguably more important: We need bright minds to solve problems. Brain capital is the foundation upon which future societal progress and prosperity are built. Yet, this precious resource is under siege. Social media, social isolation, climate stress, and political volatility are real, tangible threats to the mental well-being of our youth. 

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted the mental health crisis could undermine our democracy. Our younger generation faces unprecedented stressors, which manifest in a spectrum of mental health issues.

The most disturbing aspect of this crisis isn’t just the present challenges but the future we risk losing if we fail to act. If we don’t intervene now – early and in a preventative manner – we risk losing an entire generation. This loss isn’t only about the tragic suicides, although each is a devastating blow. It’s broader and deeper. We risk losing these young individuals to future mental illnesses, lost educational opportunities, and diminished productivity. The cumulative weight of world events, political uncertainties, and the grim reality of mass shootings, all weaponized by social media, is a burden too heavy for their developing brains.

Our current approach to this crisis is woefully inadequate. We need to address this problem from all angles: with government and educational system support and with the support of tech innovators. Traditional mental health services cannot alone address the scale and complexity of our challenges. Similarly, the burgeoning industry of start-ups offering mental health services often caters to a privileged few. This creates a chasm of inequality, where those most in need – often in less affluent communities – are left without the necessary support. 

We need a paradigm shift. We must view youth brain capital as a public good, critical to our collective future. This requires robust public-private partnerships that provide equitable, resilience-building mental health solutions. A recent report by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, and Grey Matter Capital summarizes significant opportunities for youth mental health innovation: We need the adoption and use of youth mental health integrated care models, leveraged digital health tools to address existing workforce gaps and expanded existing telemedicine models to increase access to adequate care. 

Some positive examples of innovative public-private partnerships bridging this gap are: 

  • In California, everyone 25 years old and youngersome 13 million children, teens and young adults – now has access to two digital mental health and wellness apps as part of an ambitious $4.7 billion investment in behavioral health. BrightLife Kids will support parents and caregivers and children (0-12), and Soluna will serve teens and young adults (13-25) at no cost to the user. 
  • The University of Texas System recently funded TimelyCare to support UT students across 13 different institutions. 
  • Humanest has proven that over 10,000 young people can be empowered to support each other.
  • In Pennsylvania, Kooth Digital Health supports approximately 100,000 students, giving them free access to self-guided mental health and wellness tools and counseling. 

Teenagers today are navigating a world of accelerations – rapidly advancing technology, escalating climate change, and intense socio-political shifts. They must be resilient and adaptable, not just to survive but to thrive in a world of worsening weather extremes and socio-political unrest. They must be creative and inventive to drive global sustainability, explore alternative energies, combat rising inequality, and address biodiversity loss. They must be brain citizens, adept at flourishing in a brain-based economy.

Investing in youth brain capital is not just a moral imperative. It is an economic necessity. The price of not acting upon it is too great. If we don’t invest in young people’s brain capital today – not tomorrow, next year, or after the next election – we risk losing our future. Let’s face it: Young people have been dealt a less-than-ideal hand in the world that they’ve inherited. How can we expect them to turn the tide if we don’t give them the tools they need to do so? Meaningful investment in their future and supporting their brain capital is the least we can do.

Editors note: The author is an advisor to Kooth Digital Health.

Photo: SDI Productions, Getty Images

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