Youth Mental Health

Innovative Youth Mental Health Corps Empowers Young People To Support Their Peers

The innovative program is set to launch this fall in four states to address the country’s youth mental health crisis.

With the ever-evolving mental health crisis affecting youth across America, a new program aims to meet them where they are by training young people to help their peers. 

Natalie Santiago, a key figure in the creation of the Youth Mental Health Corps, expressed pride in being part of an initiative she believes would have been invaluable during her own challenging upbringing. Growing up with an abusive, drug-addicted father and a grandmother who struggled to make ends meet and encouraged her to “pray on it” when faced with mental hurdles, Santiago sees the Corps as a vital resource for today’s youth, NBC News reported.

Santiago managed to defy the odds and go on to pursue a career in education, philanthropy, and public service. She has held positions at the Department of Education and the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama. More recently, she served in a role at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy under President Joe Biden.

Today, she is helping young people as they navigate growing pains that ultimately affect how they show up in the world.

“Here I am, 54-year-old me, saying, what would 16-year-old me have loved?” Santiago recalled. “How do we help kids who may not be insured or have access to therapy, or with parents who don’t know how to access services? How do I create a way for these kids to get help?”

These reflections led to her helping to launch the Youth Mental Health Corps. Set to launch in fall 2024, the program will deploy across four states to address the country’s youth mental health crisis, which Surgeon General Murthy calls “the defining public health issue of our time.”

According to the 2021 Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, “1 out of 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of hopelessness, and that the second leading cause of death for youth between 10 and 14 is suicide.”

Backed by AmeriCorps, the federal agency that leads volunteering and national service in the U.S., the first-of-its-kind initiative will “recruit young volunteers to work in assisting other youngsters who are struggling with mental health issues.”

Volunteers will receive training along with a state-specific credential in the behavioral health field to help them as they work for a year or two, depending upon their preference, alongside schools, nonprofits, and community organizations with the mission to connect their fellow youth to the mental health support they need. Participants will also receive a stipend to cover living costs for their work.

According to Santiago, “This program will not only serve the mental health needs of young people – but it will also help increase the pipeline of young people pursuing studies and careers in fields like social work or psychology.

The program, also backed by funders like the Schultz Family Foundation, Pinterest, and America Forward, will launch in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas. By fall 2025, the goal is to expand to 11 states, especially those with a heavy Latino population, including California, New Jersey, New York, and Utah. 

“The reality is that the crisis of lack of access to mental health services for Black and Latino youth has been ongoing for decades,” said Kiara Alvarez, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Now that there has been greater attention, greater openness to talking about youth mental health, in some ways we are catching up to a crisis that has been here all along.”

People ages 18 to 24 with a high school diploma are encouraged to apply to serve in the Corps. Part-time and full-time positions will also be available for those interested.

RELATED CONTENT: Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund Helps Frontline Reporters Stay Sane