A Closer Look at Supporting Teens in the middle of a Mental Health Provider Shortage

I've always been acutely aware of how in need of mental health services young people are. Having grown up in New Zealand with a mother who worked as a counsellor for most of my childhood: I heard bits and pieces about cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], psychotherapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and psychotherapy, but it wasn't until I was diagnosed with depression myself at the age of 12 - as a result of multiple neurological-, interpersonal-, and sexual- traumas - that I really began to understand the need for mental health care for young people.

Not just because of my own experiences with therapy, but also because of how I saw my friends struggle. When I was 11years old, one of my best friends started to cut his wrists, and started finding solace in substance- and sexual experimentation. When I was 12years old, I was sexually assaulted by a 13year old who, as I learned later, was being abused by one of his family members. When I was 15, I was raped by a family member, and just a few years later: I lost another best friend to a medical complication, my ex-boyfriend to suicide, and a close family friend to substance abuse.

This was all in the early 2000's. Before the huge increase of social media - and long before the pandemic occurred.

Even then: my school of 1100 pupils had only 2 guidance counsellors... when the recommended ratio is no more than 250 students per school counselor. Especially now: in 2023. Yet, we are severely lacking in the ability to achieve these numbers.

Especially here in the United States, where I've been working in the "music and mental health for teens" services area for the past five years. But before we get to that, let's cover a few things.

What is a School Counselor's Role?

The High School Counselor's role entails overseeing a comprehensive school counseling program that emphasizes prevention, developmental approaches, and assistance for DCPS students across academic achievement, career and college planning, and personal and social development.

Counselors and therapists play vital roles in helping individuals navigate common challenges and often provide similar guidance. Yet, the key distinction lies in the therapist's commitment to exploring the underlying "how" and "why" aspects of these challenges, fostering a deeper understanding for their clients.

Funding, Finances and Time

As illustrated in a recent article by the Washington Post, there's a depressingly logical reason behind the low number of therapists in schools:

  • to become a licensed professional counselor takes between six to seven years

  • the need is so great that school counselors become overwhelmed

  • mental health issues among young people are complex, and therefore need more experienced counsellors and therapists to handle the complexities appropriately

  • because of the crisis, schools could prefer to hire lesser-trained employees because they do not have to be paid as much

How the shortage is affecting school counselors and youth

According to the aforementioned article in the Washington Post, it's not difficult to see how, and why the national [dare I say global?] shortage is negatively affecting both young adults, and school counselors alike.

The average school counselor has approximately 250 students under their guidance - potentially even more in typically lower-decile and underserved communities. And while more affluent schools have less alarming numbers: today's youth are still in dire need of support.

For starters, there are a multitude of different approaches to youthwork and therapy - particularly in schools:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  • Behavior Therapy

  • Interpersonal psychotherapy

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy

  • Person-centered therapy

  • Narrative therapy

  • Rational emotive behavior therapy

  • Dialectal behavior therapy

... to name a few. But these are, by and large, all types of talk therapy, which - in addition to taking years to gain certification to practice: don't necessarily work for the typical Gen Z student.

Why?

I was talking with the Inside the Mom's Club podcast about this just yesterday. Simply put: Gen Z was born, is built, and is being raised differently to any other generation. Not to say that previous generations were born without trauma, but - unlike even the Millennial generation - Gen Z was born into, and raised with the internet and social media. Which has consequentially led to:

  • an increase in bullying - when previously one could leave their school troubles on the playground; they're now bringing those issues home with them via Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

  • decreased attention spans - as evidenced by the 30second - 3minute [now 10minute on TikTok] video length on social media.

  • a difficult-to-monitor algorithm uniquely tailored to every individual - and while these algorithms have evolved over time: they're certainly designed to cater for the user's perceived interests, even when they may be harmful, misleading, or negative

Which then, of course, leads to:

  • very real emotional, social and mental health concerns - especially as depression has been on a significant rise in the past four years

  • difficulty in school, and academic learning, as educators have to compete with social media for their students' attention

  • potentially well-meaning, but often harmful, misleading, or misunderstood mental health advice on social media [social media is not where you go for 100% support on your mental health journey]

  • and, of course, students struggling to stay engaged, or remember the lessons learned, during therapy sessions.

As a result, the Washington Post stated it themselves: "Nontraditional providers may be the only solution in both low- and high-resource settings, at least in the short term".

In other words: We Need Creative Solutions to Help Combat the Mental Health Crisis in Gen Z Students

Chances are: you've heard of a number of fun ways to engage young people when it comes to their mental health journey. Some common ones are:

  • teletherapy - in the age of teens often not feeling comfortable talking face to face: they instead opt for telephone and text conversation to express themselves

  • play therapy - using toys as a way of expressing oneself, or even to illustrate events in their lives that they may struggle to find the words for.

  • gratitude journals - giving prompts and written opportunity for young adults to redirect their thinking more positively

  • art therapy - encouraging people to express themselves through art like painting, drawing, or sculpting, used for healing or diagnosis

  • music therapy - where your therapist plays music or a recording, and a young person listens to it before discussing the music, and using it to assist in working through your feelings or past experiences.

Each of these alternatives to typical approaches to mental health services provided in schools is fantastic, however I think we need more. As a millennial myself; who was born before the advent of social media, but has absolutely seen and experienced the ramifications of algorithms, online bullying, online predators, overwhelm, and an unfortunately lowered attention span as a result: I have personally found that the answer lies in a combination of creative tools when it comes to the mental health and wellness journey of the young people I work with.

I'm talking, of course, about the power of music and songwriting.

I've been working with teenagers for almost 20years now: using music as a tool to help them find their voice, honor the power that their voices have, and understand themselves better when it comes to how they use their voice.

In the past five years, my focus has expanded to work with young adults specifically on their emotional-, and mental- health journey using the power of songwriting.

I talked about it in my TEDx Talk in 2022 about how music and songwriting saved my life - especially after having had ten brain surgeries. How? Because not only does songwriting and music, but

  • Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy: songwriting can assist students in redirecting their thoughts: re-framing them positively, as opposed to focusing on the negative.

  • Similar to interpersonal psychotherapy: songwriting can give young people the creative opportunity to find the right language to express themselves honestly and openly through song lyrics - especially when it comes to current problems and relationships that they are experiencing.

  • Similar to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: music can offer a setting to help young people find stillness, and objectively analyze their thoughts, feelings and ideas with an almost meditative approach.

  • Similar to person-centered therapy: songwriting assists as a tool for young adults to quite literally write their own narrative. Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker famously said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Songwriting is a fantastic tool to be able to do that creating.

... and the list goes on.

Youth Empowerment through Songwriting [YES] coaching is a fantastic creative alternative to help combat the significant increase in the mental health concerns plaguing Gen Z, and assisting school counsellors in their fight to address the very real rise in depression, anxiety and even social justice issues among them.

The approach helps teens

  • Identify key triggers, struggles and negative events.

  • Simplify thoughts, ideas and overwhelm into more manageable chunks.

  • Understand, and recognize how they can redirect those thoughts, reframe events, or shift their focus on the silver lining of their struggles [take the blessings from the lessons].

  • Take ownership of their abilities to be their own [super]hero.

  • Find the right language to communicate about their thoughts, feelings and ideas with their family, friends and community-at-large.

Some surprising benefits can also be:

Easier said than done? That's why I'm here.

I've been working with people from as young as seven years old to the classic age of 81 to use music and songwriting as tools to help them mentally, emotionally, neurologically, physically, and more. I also spend a lot of time in the middle- and high-school classroom: working alongside teachers and school social-workers to help teens turn their struggles into songs.

And it's been incredible.

The power of music and songwriting is something I'm beyond passionate about, but I get it. It might feel a little overwhelming for you to even begin to use as a tool in the classroom. That's why I'm here.

If you're interested in learning more about how to introduce the non-traditional approach to mental health services for your young people [or person], click here to book a free discovery call to learn more - and get a free PDF copy of the teaching principles I incorporate into the work I do.

I look forward to speaking with you soon!

~ Emma G

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