Many Young Adults Leaving Foster Care Feel Unprepared to Manage Their Mental Health

A new study of more than 700 teens about to age-out of the California foster care system shows that more than half were still receiving mental health counseling, and those with a diagnosed mental disorder were more likely to say they felt less prepared to manage their mental health on their own.

The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, offer 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.

“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 Professor Michelle Munson of 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.”

An estimated 25,000 to 28,000 youth transition out of foster care each year in the United States. Not surprisingly, mental disorders are elevated among youth in foster care, and the transition to adulthood has been shown to be especially difficult and challenging. One contributing factor is the reduction of support from professional child welfare and mental health workers in the youth’s life.

For the study, the research team interviewed 727 youth 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 felt stressed out; being able to calm down when they became angry or upset; talking to others about things that were bothering 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 of the teens said they were using counseling services, and almost a third were using medications. Youth 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.

Young people 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. Authors suggested this may be due to variation in caseload size.

Additionally, youth who identified as 100% heterosexual were less likely to receive counseling and reported feeling more prepared to manage their mental health, than were youth who identified as not 100% heterosexual.

These and other findings can help inform the development and delivery of mental health interventions designed for youth with particular characteristics, according to the study.

Munson conducted the study with Mark Courtney, Samuel Deutsch Professor at the University of Chicago and Principal Investigator of the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH) where the data were drawn; Nate Okpych of the University of Connecticut; and Colleen Katz of Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY).

Source: New York University

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