One in five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, while one in three demonstrates symptoms of depression, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, many of these young adults do not receive adequate mental healthcare.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Keener is all-too-familiar with the need for more comprehensive mental healthcare in the adolescent community. That’s why he founded Blackbird Health, a technology backed service company that helps adolescents and their families navigate the mental healthcare landscape.
The growing need for mental healthcare in the adolescent population is due in part to the fact that the years defining this transitional period between puberty and adulthood have changed drastically over the past century; puberty today starts earlier than ever, and the assumption of adult responsibilities such as buying a house, settling into a profession, or starting a family happens increasingly later.
“50 to 100 years ago, the space between puberty and being a full-fledged adult lasted from 13-16 years of age,” says Keener. “This time period that used to last three years is now more like 20 years. You’re looking at the space of 12 to 30 years old, or longer.”
This extended cultural adolescence is also accompanied by a longer period of brain development . According to Keener, activities like stepping into a role of responsibility at work or within a family help to mold an adolescent brain into a more adult brain through training, or what scientists term “experience dependent neuroplasticity.”
Typically, this period of development is marked by risk taking behaviors on the perimeter of adult culture that can lead to both opportunity and emotional stress. “It’s when people create that startup, decide to go to law school, have a family or travel the world,” explains Keener. “But it’s also a period when we see much greater risk for onset of disorders like depression, addiction, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”
This risk is exacerbated by what Keener describes as a weakening of overall cultural bonds and community. Blackbird Health seeks to restore this fading sense of community and serve this growing at-risk population by connecting young adults with one another, real time health navigators, and other resources through both in-person and telehealth services.
“Out here on the perimeter we need guides and we need community,” says Keener. “Just because people have left the safe nest, doesn’t mean that they can’t still have an anchor or a lifeline to healthcare.”
You can hear more about Dr. Keener and his work next week in Boston at HxR, during a panel entitled “Designing to Support Mental Health.”
Abby Ballou is the managing editor of MedTech Boston. She has a B.A. and M.Phil in English literature from NYU and the CUNY Graduate Center, respectively. When she isn't writing and editing for MedTech Boston, Abby enjoys reading, rock climbing, watching classic movies and listening to opera.
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