Jennifer Frank in floral blouse.
Published on: September 23, 2019

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for a comprehensive national agenda to improve mental, emotional and behavioral health in children and youth. Jennifer Frank, assistant professor of education, senior research associate with the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and Social Science Research Institute faculty cofunded faculty member at Penn State, served on the panel responsible for the report.

Frank was one of 15 distinguished, multidisciplinary scientists named to the National Academy of Sciences' Consensus Study on Fostering Healthy Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral (MEB) Development among Children and Youth two years ago. She was selected based on her background in school-based prevention and experiences investigating mindfulness-based interventions.

“I am honored to be part of the independent, nonpartisan panel that guides our efforts and funding to protect young people from mental, emotional and behavioral (MEB) disorders into the next decade,” said Frank.

Despite advances in research, rates of depression, suicide and self-harm among young people have been increasing. MEB disorders not only impose suffering on individuals and their families, they also are costly to society, contributing to school and workforce dropout, incarceration and homelessness. In 2015, suicide was the No. 2 cause of death among young people ages 15-24, and between 2005 and 2014, the proportion of adolescents experiencing a major depressive episode increased from 8.7 percent to 11.3 percent.

The report finds that new research into factors that influence MEB health, effective interventions, and better ways to implement those interventions on a broad scale are forming a foundation for significantly improving healthy MEB development.

"Fostering Healthy Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Development in Children and Youth: A National Agenda" includes both policy and research recommendations to address MEB health and is available free to the public. The report calls for federal leadership and coordination between public and private partners at the national, state and community levels to make MEB health a priority, and for them to take full advantage of research on interventions and implementation.

“The report is an important collaborative scientific effort to identify feasible and effective ways to promote the healthy social-emotional development of children and youth in the United States,” Frank said. “Although research on how to promote healthy mental, emotional and behavioral development has grown significantly in the past decade, we still have a long way to go in translating these findings into meaningful change in the daily lived experiences of children and the adults who care for them.”

The 2019 report proposes that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should lead the charge in making child and youth MEB health a national priority by:

  • Coordinating a highly visible national effort — "A Decade of Children and Youth" — to prioritize the promotion of healthy MEB development through collaboration with agencies at the state and local levels, as well as private partners, including national and local foundations and the business community.
  • Articulating specific national goals and objectives in support of healthy MEB development, including health promotion and risk prevention.
  • Developing an integrated plan for data collection, coordination and analysis of federal surveys, administrative data and vital statistics, providing a comprehensive approach to measuring and tracking child and adolescent MEB health.
  • Encouraging and supporting the integration and coordination of new and existing efforts at the federal, state, and local levels, using coordinating and convening capacities, pooling of resources, funding of outcomes analyses, regulatory options, and other powers and incentives.

The report emphasizes that children’s social and physical environments shape their brains, and consequently their behaviors and emotions. Growing evidence of the interplay among biological, social and environmental influences on MEB development has profound implications for the design of interventions to promote healthy MEB development. The committee noted that characteristics of the broader society in which the individual, family and community are situated, such as poverty and economic inequality; systemic racism and discrimination; law- and policy-driven factors; and the marketing of unhealthful products, can influence MEB health.

The report recommends that federal agencies support rapid progress in the development and dissemination of effective MEB interventions for large populations by providing funding and other resources. The report also recommends collaborations with other agencies, states and communities to comprehensively assess existing sources of data that track population trends, MEB health and development of children and youth, the factors that influence it, and current efforts to improve MEB health.

Additionally, the committee identified directions for future research, including building on the growing body of work that examines ways to promote healthy MEB development at the population level, and emerging possibilities for reaching people through school-based interventions and the health care system.

The study was sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Human Development and Disability; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health. 

Report Highlights are available at this link.