The kids are not alright.
Medical experts agree that, after nearly three years of pandemic-induced strain, children are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
One signal of just how severe a crisis: The U.S. Department of Education is ready to give schools $280 million through two grant programs to help young people access mental health care. It’s the first wave of a total $1 billion—funded through the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—that the department will spend on youth mental health programs over the next five years.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says the funding will fill the gap faced by schools that lack mental health services. Its intent is “recruiting, preparing, hiring, and training highly qualified school-based mental health providers,” he said in a call for applications to the grant funds.
“We know children and youth can’t do their best learning when they’re experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges,” Cardona said in the announcement, “whether they stem from community violence, social isolation from the pandemic, loss of loved ones, bullying, harassment, or something else.”
By The Numbers
A key reason for rising mental health struggles among young people? Well, um, “because pandemic.”
In a report released earlier this year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation contended that American children are “in the midst of a mental health crisis” spurred in no small part by the coronavirus health crisis, with childhood rates of depression and anxiety ballooning compared to figures from before the pandemic. The number of children ages 3 to 17 struggling with anxiety or depression rose by 1.5 million between 2016 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the report finds. Which children are at risk? The study says that the rate of attempted suicide is higher for Black, American Indian or Native Alaskan, and multi-racial students compared to their white peers. The rate is also higher for LGBTQ+ youth of all races.
As for what specifically has contributed to rising mental health struggles among young people, author and critic Malcom Harris mused in the “Intelligencer” that isolation from friends, a lack of independence from parents, and increased reliance on technology shepherded in by coronavirus restrictions may be to blame.
Getting Help to Students Early
Doctors are part of the chorus urging early detection and treatment of childhood mental health issues.
In an effort to catch childhood anxiety disorders that might otherwise go undetected, medical experts now recommend that primary care doctors screen patients as young as 8 years old. Doctors say that children left to manage their anxiety symptoms alone can develop negative coping habits that can be harmful as they grow.
“The anxious child who might be chewing at their collar at 3 years old turns to biting their nails at 9, and then is struggling in school in their teens,” Teresa Hsu-Walklet, assistant director of the pediatric behavioral health integration program at Montefiore Medical Group in New York City, told the New York Times.
It’s important to note that kids don’t have equal opportunities to receive the kind of care doctors recommend. The Annie E. Casey Foundation report found—predictably—racial disparities in youth access to mental health services.
Just as schools help hungry kids get meals they can’t find elsewhere, perhaps schools could also help suffering kids access treatment for anxiety, depression and related concerns. The new federal grant opportunity will put that hypothesis to the test.
Schools will soon have the opportunity to apply for grants of an annual $400,000 to $3 million—that’s every year for five years, depending on the grant—to hire school mental health personnel or partner with a local university to increase the pipeline of mental health workers.
Some of the resulting programs could look like the partnership between University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mississippi Department of Education, which is using $17.6 million of the state’s COVID-19 relief funds for telehealth services for students in its K-12 schools. That includes remote behavioral health care, in addition to other telehealth services.
The Education Department says there are signs that increased funding is ushering in progress when it comes to getting more mental health professionals in schools, estimating that more than $2 billion in school COVID-19 relief funds have been spent on hiring “more school psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals in K-12 schools.” That means the number of school social workers and counselors is up by 54 percent and 22 percent, respectively, compared to pre-pandemic levels.