Are We Listening? Youth Mental Health Challenges are Rooted in Young Adult Poverty Rates

By Nia West-Bey

“I feel like it all come down to money … because when you struggling and stuff, you gonna do what you got to do … Money don’t make happiness, but when you can’t do nothing without money, you gonna snap bruh. The pressure gonna be too much and not everybody can handle that pressure.”

— Young Adult Focus Group Participant, Everybody Got their Go-Throughs, 2017

The COVID-19 pandemic focused a national spotlight on youth mental health challenges, drawing an unprecedented amount of attention from policymakers, the media, and the public. But youth mental health needs existed before the pandemic; indeed, while these needs were clearly growing for years there has long been a mismatch between the level of need and the services available.

During the pandemic, much of the attention given to youth mental health needs focused on adult-driven priorities and solutions, rather than those solutions long articulated by youth. Specifically, although new investments in mental health services and increased access to clinical care are important, young people have made the importance of addressing the root causes of their mental health challenges clear.

Young people from marginalized communities consistently cite poverty as one of the three root causes and key drivers of mental health needs. People are often surprised to learn that young people ages 18-24 have one of the highest poverty rates of any demographic group in the country. In fact, in 2021 (the last year for which data are currently available), young adults moved to the top of the list: while the national poverty rate was 11.6 percent, the young adult poverty rate was 14.3 percent. This was in a year where the overall poverty rate decreased and the poverty rate for children was cut in half by pandemic recovery investments.

As we engage with young people living in poverty around the country, we consistently hear about the mental health burden imposed by financial strain. Whether urban or rural communities, African-American, Indigenous, white, Asian-American, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Latino, LGBTQ+ or young parents, young people identify poverty as a barrier to mental well-being. This finding has been further confirmed by a recent review of more than a dozen youth-led research projects and reports focused on mental health. When we center young people with marginalized identities, they emphasize the role of poverty and the related experiences of financial instability and food insecurity in shaping mental health outcomes.

Despite the clear links between youth mental health and young adult poverty, we have not made an appreciable dent in the youth poverty rate. Policy interventions dating back to the New Deal have dramatically reduced elder poverty. More recently, we saw child poverty cut in half because of expansions in and improvements to the child tax credit as part of pandemic recovery. Even as these policy interventions reduced poverty overall and for children, young adults have been lucky to experience modest improvements. We have yet to make a national commitment to lifting young adults out of poverty, and the consequences of this lack of commitment are clear.

Until we move the needle on young adult poverty, we won’t make a dent in the youth mental health crisis. Youth mental health and poverty are inextricably linked, making economic justice interventions mental health interventions. We must heed young people’s calls for investments in youth workforce development and education, ending subminimum wages, student debt relief, expanding support for entrepreneurship, and food and housing equity. We must also answer their calls for youth peer support, better health insurance coverage, and school, community, and technology-based mental health services to comprehensively meet young people’s mental health needs. The latter set of recommendations will only get us partway to our goals and fail to move us further upstream to prevent mental health challenges. Until we get serious about reducing and ultimately eradicating young adult poverty, our efforts toward equitable and just mental health outcomes will fall short.

“[W]e’re talking about trying to find even like basic income … like we’re talking about putting money in the pockets of low-income Americans so that you don’t have to have these other stressors where we’re talking about … all of these other interrelated factors.”

— Young Adult Focus Group Participant, Atlanta, 2023