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Talking Youth Mental Health in 425 Magazine

Lidia Harding
Agency news School-based
YES & David Downing featured in 425 Magazine

NEWS ALERT! In an exclusive interview featured in May’s edition of 425 Magazine, Youth Eastside Services (YES) CEO David W. Downing discusses youth mental health trends on the Eastside, how YES is responding by implementing evidence-based practices, adapting services to increase access to services, and partnering with local schools to serve youth where they’re at. The interview also highlights how parents and adults can support youth, the steps YES takes to address workforce challenges, and YES’ holistic approach to therapy, which combines science, heart, culture, and an understanding of youth and their support systems​.

Read “Talking Mental Health with Youth Eastside Services’ David Downing” in 425 Magazine.

Talking Mental Health with Youth Eastside Services’ David Downing

By: Stephanie Quiroz May 22, 2024 

Youth Eastside Services has been a lifeline for youth and families in East King County since 1968. The nonprofit provides prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for mental-health and substance-use disorders, life stressors and crises, and stress-related physical symptoms.

Youth mental health issues have been rising nationally, statewide, and locally for more than a decade. Data shows depression and anxiety are the most common mental-health issues for children and adolescents. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10–24 in Washington. Locally, 19% of eighth-graders, 21% of 10th-graders, and 22% of 12th-graders have considered suicide, according to the Washington State Department of Health Youth Survey in 2021.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility to be checking in with young people,” YES CEO David Downing told 425 in March. “We are in a true mental-health crisis, and we have been. We were before we went through COVID and the lockdown. … I really would like people to be mindful that it wasn’t just that experience that did it; it highlighted it. … and it continues at a level that is even higher than it was before then.”

Downing has been with YES for more than 18 years, with the past three years as CEO. Downing also is a licensed mental-health counselor who practices from time to time. In light of Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Downing to learn more about the landscape of youth mental health, how YES advocates for systemic solutions, ways adults can help, and more. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does YES define youth mental health?

With a wide spectrum. It’s all the social-emotional wellness factors and (also) empowering young people with all the different tools they need. There are some young people who may not fit into what the industry has defined as a mental-health challenge, but they’re not doing socially-emotionally well. If there are barriers that are happening in a person’s life that are preventing them from being successful, it’s taking more of a wider scope in that kind of way.

What is the current landscape of youth mental health?

We are in this kind of learning phase of where young people are going. But I can tell you (that) what we see now is the need has continued to be greater in terms of the number of young people that need help. Within that, there is a much larger group of young people who have a much higher acuity, meaning their presenting symptoms are much bigger, they’re much more challenging to actually help them resolve, and they require more assistance from our psychiatrists. When I say “psychiatrist,” I think it’s really important that people understand that doesn’t necessarily mean that all young people are on medication and that that’s the solution. It’s that we have a team — our team of mental-health therapists, case managers, and psychiatrists. We have team consultations and the like. We have different levels of expertise and lenses that we use in care teams as we are working with young people.

What are the mental-health challenges young people face on the Eastside and beyond?

One of the things that’s really interesting is if you start looking at some of the data that’s out there, from national to state, all the way down to the local data, the Healthy Youth Survey data — a self-report tool that’s done across Washington state, and it’s done throughout the Eastside districts — you can look at that data and see that it represents this growth over time in terms of anxiety, stress, depression, and suicidality. These are all top key areas that we see a tremendous amount (of). We also see a lot of stress around pressure to perform, and that adds a great deal to the mental-health challenges that young people are having.

Talk a little more about why this is alarming.

My concern is that untreated mental health is where we end up having losses. What we’ve seen over time in our industry is this increase in suicides and drug overdoses as well. It’s a very different face now because young people don’t necessarily look like they’re needing help, and those are often the kids that we’re losing, that adults are not recognizing. We’re not asking the right questions to all kids, and I think that’s kind of a key thing. It’s so important for us as adults, a wide range of adults, to be asking kids and checking in with them.

How can parents and adults help youth? What signs should we be looking for?

If a young person is being less engaged in usual activities; if they seem quieter than usual; if their grades are shifting and changing; (and) if their friendship group is changing, and there seems to be concerns in terms of what that friendship group looks like. Those are some more of the obvious signs.

I think that the really important thing for us is to cross the threshold of being afraid to ask all young people how they’re doing. A lot of people are kind of afraid to actually ask that question. I encourage all adults — not just parents, but coaches, teachers, and neighbors — to be asking kids. Think of ways that may be less threatening. If you’re riding in a car, standing next to each other in the kitchen, maybe going on a walk. We can use technology. You can use it for good, too, and you can text and check in as well. It takes everybody in the community to really step forward and to be there for kids and be willing to be brave and to check in with them.

Watch a video produced by YES on how to approach conversations with youth.

In what ways is YES advocating for systemic solutions?

We lead (a) School-Based Strategy team, which was something that I started years ago, (that) brings together other behavioral health (providers). (We) meet on a monthly basis with school district staff (in the Lake Washington and Bellevue school districts), and we talk about what is actually happening, what the trends are, and how the services are being organized throughout the community. We’re also a partner with Eastside Pathways, which is a collective entity organization that brings together all partners that are serving youth throughout the Eastside. (They) are doing a variety of services, whether they’re directly behavioral health or mental health; they’re supporting youth across the spectrum in all kinds of ways, like the Boys & Girls Club. We are looking at all of these kinds of issues together as a community in that kind of sense. We also do a lot of education. Parent education, I think, is key.

Why is YES important, and how is it addressing challenges within its workforce to offer more resources?

Community mental-health organizations like ours, we serve everybody regardless of ability to pay. … We also have an ability to serve kids that are not likely to be served by private practitioners. We have a different approach and different resources to do that. … The industry as a whole in mental health is seeing this real deficit. There (are) not enough behavioral-health providers, and the work that is done with young people, it’s really difficult work. … Having a strong workforce is important. We have done things like invested in pay increases and done several lifts of that. In addition to that, training opportunities and investing in our workforce is something that has been important. We also have worked to diversify the workforce investing in Visas, DACAs, green cards, (and) those kinds of things that have been helpful for us to reflect the community that we reside in, and are ready to help with it.

YES’ approach combines science, heart, culture, and understanding of young people’s connections to their support system. Can you touch more on this approach and the benefits you’ve seen?

You first have to have the heart; you have to have the relationship. When you have the heart and you have the passion and compassion for them, and you keep working with them on those skills, that’s when we see a real difference happening in terms of a way that kids are able to live a life that they find worth living. Many of the kids that we have come here anxious, very depressed, and they don’t see a hope for their future. And if any kid leaves here and they don’t feel that, that to me is (when) we’re achieving our mission. That’s always our goal.

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