Opportunity Youth and Mental Health: How to Support our Nation’s Struggling Population

Work-family supports are critical in ensuring young people can remain attached to the workforce while still being able to attend to their mental health needs.

Managing mental health can be challenging for many, particularly for those who are balancing work with their mental health needs. For Opportunity Youth (“OY”), categorized as young people aged 16-24 who are neither working nor in school, systemic factors, including a lack of access to mental health supports in the workplace, can be especially challenging. This is all the more compounded by the fact our country is facing a large-scale youth mental health crisis. In the United States, there are approximately 4.4 million Opportunity Youth, or one in nine young people. Young people’s disconnection from school or work can result from systemic causes including cyclical poverty, structural racism and sexism, education disparities, housing instability, and lack of access to critical workplace protections that can help them stay attached to the workforce without having to sacrifice their caregiving or health needs, including their mental health needs.

Research shows that young adults aged 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of  experiencing any mental illness (33.7%). Those in that age group who are neither in school nor employed are 3 times more likely than their connected peers to develop depression and other mental health disorders. Mental illness is even more common amongst LGBTQ+ youth, who represent a disproportionate number of OY, and often face unique challenges and factors that can make both managing their mental health and being protected and supported in the workplace more difficult. No matter what kinds of mental or physical health needs workers experience – including accessing therapy or medication, time off for substance abuse treatment or inpatient treatment, and more – everybody deserves to be supported in caring for themselves and their loved ones, without sacrificing their job or paycheck. 

During their most foundational years that set the trajectory for their lives, Opportunity  Youth need the support of policy makers. By prioritizing access to paid leave, healthcare, and caregiving supports, we can ensure that young people are fully supported in the workplace and beyond. Mental health is equally as important as physical health, and Opportunity Youth deserve to be able to care for themselves without fear of financial ruin or loss of employment. Keeping youth attached to their education and employment would have lasting benefits on their individual future, but would also increase the overall prosperity of the nation. 

Federal paid family and medical leave and paid sick time are practical policy solutions that can help support young workers’ mental health. Workplace policies that recognize the realities and needs of the workforce are an immeasurable support to promoting the overall mental health of employees, and providing critical support for those managing mental illness. For young workers, the need for paid time off to attend medical appointments or care for themselves or their loved ones is especially urgent. Young workers often work in low-wage positions where employers may not offer paid time off, which can force them to attend work while sick or skip crucial appointments and preventative care that can help keep them healthy. Recognizing the humanity of workers by providing these crucial policies would not only help keep Opportunity Youth attached to their jobs, but would ensure that they can take the time they need to address their own mental health needs. 

A Better Balance is proud to advocate for the FAMILY Act and the Healthy Families Act, which would codify a national right to both paid sick time and paid family and medical leave. The FAMILY Act would provide workers nationwide with job-protected, paid leave to care for themselves and  their loved ones should they inevitably develop caregiving needs, experience a serious illness, or require exigency or safe leave. The Healthy Families Act would ensure that workers nationwide can earn up to 7 days of paid sick time for shorter-term leave to address their own health needs or those of their family.

In addition to paid family and medical leave and paid sick time, policies like universal quality healthcare, accessible child care, high paying employment opportunities, technical training, housing security, enforcing pregnancy and breastfeeding protections, and reform to our legal system are necessary in order to truly support Opportunity Youth’s wellbeing by addressing the socio-economic determinants of health. We remain committed to fighting for all the structural supports workers of all ages need in order to thrive and remain economically secure.

If you have questions about your legal rights at work or school please contact A Better Balance’s helpline. For more specific information on the rights of pregnant and parenting youth, please visit A Better Balance’s website.

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