In the past two years, Lebanon County’s youth advocacy programs have seen an 18 percent increase in demand for behavioral health services designed to offer support to families and work on coping skills and daily functioning.
Youth Advocate Programs is a national nonprofit organization based in Harrisburg that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, public safety and other systems to provide community-based services as an alternative to youth incarceration, group residential care/treatment and neighborhood violence.
YAP Lebanon serves 25 people between the ages of 2 and 21 through its behavioral health services program, and 10 people are on the referral list — a list created out of necessity for the first time this year, said Diedra Dieter, YAP Lebanon’s director of behavioral health and Schuylkill counties.
“There was always a crisis,” Deiter said. “We’ve always been here, but I think people are more comfortable asking for help and it’s coming in droves.”
YAP is in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Behavioral health services began in 1996 in Lebanon and are one of the four main categories of services offered. More and more of YAP’s behavioral health program participants are self or family referrals.
Deiter said he believes that during the pandemic, people received more media messages about mental health from celebrities and athletes than from social media and many other platforms, which made people more comfortable reaching out for help.
“People now seem to understand that you shouldn’t be punished or made to feel ashamed for dealing with any mental health issues,” Deiter said.
The increase in demand has led to the need to hire more staff, and YAP Lebanon is in the process of hiring two more behavioral health workers, according to Dieter. Additionally, work is underway to hire additional mobile therapists who must have a master’s degree. Behavioral health staff must have a high school diploma and 40 hours of state-specific training.
Private funding is needed to help increase staffing through local individual donors, as well as national funding from philanthropic foundations and businesses, said Kelly Williams, YAP’s chief marketing and communications officer.
Behavioral health services are designed to address the needs of a child who may have some behavioral or mental health issues at home that affect their ability to function in their family unit, according to Deiter. The YAP program is designed so that professionals visit homes to observe families together.
Nevaeh began working with YAP mobile therapist Jennah Kuhn in June 2020. Nevaeh’s last name is being withheld to protect her identity.
“I couldn’t go to a store without having a panic attack,” Nevaeh said. “I don’t think if I had to go to an office I would. Coming to my home makes me a lot more comfortable because it’s my safe place.”
Kuhn believes that going to homes helps her as a therapist because she can see what is going on in the household and address it, rather than relying on stories in an office setting. Kuhn said it also helps that the time she spends with program participants is flexible. So while program participants are prescribed a certain amount of time per month, how that time is divided varies depending on the different needs of the participants, Kuhn explained.
Nevaeh said that when she first started dating Kuhn, she engaged in self-harm, and when she transitioned from online school to public school, she became withdrawn and did not participate in classes or extracurricular activities.
She now plays track, tennis and golf, Nevaeh said. Nevaeh’s mother said she’s noticed her daughter is more likely to hang out with her friends and has the confidence to do tasks that were previously impossible, like ordering a soda at McDonald’s.
The growing need for services
The 18% increase in demand for services in Lebanon mirrors national data on the current state of mental health needs in the United States.
In December 2020, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that since 2019, there has been a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency department visits among children ages 5-11 and 31 % increase among children aged 12-17. Additionally, the CDC reported that more than a third of high school students in 2021 reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling consistently sad or hopeless in the past year.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that in 2020, 3 million adolescents, which they categorize as ages 12-17, reported serious suicidal thoughts.
In December 2021, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.
According to the December 2021 US Surgeon General’s Advisory Board on the Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Revealed by the Covid-19 Pandemic, scientists have offered various potential theories as to why the current trend with the youth mental health crisis exists. Theories include:
young people are becoming more willing to discuss mental health issues openly
the increasing use of digital media
increasing academic pressure
limited access to mental health care
health risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug use
broader stressors such as the 2008 financial crisis, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence and climate change.
Dieter believes this increase is due to people becoming more comfortable seeking help and discussing mental health.
“People feel free to just call and ask questions like, ‘What do you offer?’ How can you help me? Dieter said.