As they transition out of foster care, many older teens say they feel unprepared to manage their mental health needs, according to a new study.
An estimated 25,000 to 28,000 older teens transition out of foster care each year in the United States.
The findings provide an updated look at counseling and medication use among teens in foster care, and reports on how prepared 17-year-olds feel to manage their mental health as they near adulthood.
Researchers interviewed hundreds of 17-year-olds in the California foster care system for the new study.
“As far as we know, this is the first study to ask 17-year-olds in foster care how prepared they feel to manage their mental health,” writes Michelle Munson, professor in the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.
“These results are important as the [child welfare] field continues to develop new supports for older youth in foster care, and as society continues to strive to help individuals increasingly maintain their mental health in young adulthood.”
Rising rates of mental health symptoms among children and adolescents is a matter of widespread concern.
Not surprisingly, mental disorders are elevated among youth in foster care. Among them, the transition to adulthood has proved especially difficult and challenging. One contributing factor is the curtailment of support from professional child welfare and mental health workers in the youth’s life.
For the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers interviewed 727 teens in foster care at age 17 about their mental health, service use, and preparedness to manage their mental health.
As part of the structured interviews, the researchers asked the teens how prepared they felt to manage their mental health: that is, finding ways to relax when they feel stressed out; being able to calm down when they become angry or upset; talking to others about things that bother them; knowing how to make an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist, and following through with their provider’s instructions.
Among this representative sample, more than half reported using counseling services, and almost a third reported using medications. Those with a current mental disorder indicated they were more likely to receive mental health services, but said they felt less prepared to manage their mental health than those without a current mental disorder.
Older teens who resided in largely rural counties were more likely to receive mental health services, compared to their counterparts in larger counties such as Los Angeles County. The researchers suggest variation in caseload size may explain why.
Additionally, teens who identified as 100% heterosexual reported feeling less likely to receive counseling and feeling more prepared to manage their mental health, than did youth who identified as not 100% heterosexual.
These and other findings can help develop and deliver mental health interventions designed for youth with particular characteristics, according to the study.
Additional coauthors are from the University of Chicago, the University of Connecticut, and Hunter College.