Service to Career Pathways to Support Young Adult Mental Health: Youth Mental Health Service Corps

Innovations in Youth Mental Health

By Nia West-Bey

As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, we have an opportunity to reflect on the state of youth mental health in 2024 and highlight transformative solutions aligned with our core principles to reframe mental health. Our 2023 youth data portrait indicated that levels of anxiety and depression among young people remained essentially unchanged from the year prior. For LGBTQ+ young people, these levels remained staggering. Our inability to move the needle on these outcomes is perhaps unsurprising given our failure to address the root causes of youth mental health challenges, including poverty; racism and other forms of discrimination; and community violence. This collective failure is even more frustrating given the unprecedented attention on youth mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the scope of the challenge is great, we continue to see innovative approaches in youth mental health that meet the moment and have the potential to transform access to care. Last year, we uplifted local initiatives that recognized young people’s interest in and ability to heal each other through youth peer support in Los Angeles and a community mental health worker program in New Orleans  Both approaches recognize young people’s long-expressed preference to receive support from other youth who share context, identity, and experiences. They are also responsive to young people’s strong desire to access career pathways in the mental health field, the importance of expanding the number and types of providers addressing young people’s mental health needs, and the need to diversify the providers in our systems to deliver equitable, culturally responsive care.

This year, we look to a newly launched state-level program that has the potential to significantly expand young people’s access to mental health care while launching a new cadre of young people into careers in behavioral health. The Youth Mental Health Corps is a multi-sector partnership between the Schultz Family Foundation, Pinterest, and AmeriCorps. In its inaugural year, the Youth Mental Health Corps awarded implementation grants to Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas to launch a statewide Youth Mental Health Service Corps in Fall 2024. Corps members will be young people ages 18-24 (or 18-29 in the case of peer support/recovery navigators) in one of three service pathways: school-based mental health navigator, peer support/recovery navigator, or community mental health navigator. Awards prioritized states with an existing state certification for peer support/recovery specialists or community mental health workers that allow Medicaid reimbursable services after the certification is earned or where a service-to-career pathway in the behavioral health field through school-based service can be developed. Through the first four states, the program plans to have over 500 members serving their communities. Seven other states were awarded planning grants, with hopes that they will launch Youth Mental Health Corps programs in 2025.

In addition to receiving a certification that can serve as an on-ramp to careers in behavioral health, Youth Mental Health Corps members will have access to AmeriCorps benefits including a living allowance, housing, transportation, health insurance, and an education award. Philanthropic dollars are supporting states to increase the amount of the living allowance and ensure that there is wraparound support, especially for Corps members with lived experience of mental health and substance abuse challenges. There are two policy pre-conditions that make this program feasible and sustainable with public dollars:

AmeriCorps State Service Programs: In the 200,000 Americans serve in communities to support natural disaster relief, provide critical education and social services to youth with low incomes and the elderly, and help local communities solve pressing issues like hunger and poverty. State Service Commissions provide an existing infrastructure to support, fund, and structure the Youth Mental Health Corps programs. Many of these state commissions are tapping slots in existing AmeriCorps State and National programs, including Public Health AmeriCorps for the Youth Mental Health Corps.

Medicaid Reimbursable Credentials: Youth peer support and recovery coaching are proven, equitable approaches to meeting young people’s mental health needs where young people with lived experience of mental health or substance abuse challenges are trained to support other youth. Community health workers are public health workers who provide culturally appropriate health promotion and education, assistance in accessing medical and non-medical services, translation services, care coordination, and social support. Eighteen states currently have Medicaid-reimbursable youth peer support, and 24 states currently have Medicaid-reimbursable community health workers. By channeling Corps members into Medicaid reimbursable provider types, the program ensures the sustainability of the positions beyond the period of service and that Corps members are obtaining a credential that is marketable outside of the program.

The Youth Mental Health Corps program expands the available provider types in alignment with young people’s preferences and increases access to providers who share identity, community, and experiences with young people. Scaling these programs nationwide will require prioritizing mental health in AmeriCorps funding opportunities, expanded state funding for service programs, and providing technical assistance to support cross-sector collaborations between national service, mental health, education, and youth-serving sectors. By drawing on learnings from the implementation of the Youth Mental Health Corps in early adopter states, we have an opportunity to bring a transformational strategy to addressing youth mental health nationwide.