The time to address the student mental health crisis is now

One of the most damaging impacts of the pandemic is the toll it has taken on our nation’s students — many of whom are struggling with feelings of grief, anxiety, isolation, and depression brought on by the enormous difficulties of this pandemic. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the numerous challenges that our students have faced over the past few years.

Our kids have been facing unprecedented stresses. From the loss of loved ones and caregivers, to economic uncertainty, to social isolation, this added stress has put a crushing weight on the shoulders of our students — and we are seeing the heartbreaking results before our very eyes.

Nationally, nearly two out of every three young people have expressed feeling down or depressed during the pandemic. In 2020, in Nevada’s Clark County School District alone students died by suicide at a rate twice that of the year prior. These are not just statistics; these are 20 children — from fourth grade up through high school — who will never get to live out their futures, and families and communities devastated with unimaginable pain and grief.

Although we’ve made important strides to overcome many aspects of the pandemic by getting parents back to work and getting our kids safely back in classrooms, too many of our students are still suffering. We must take action to address the mental health challenges that our children face and drive down this surge of student anxiety, depression, and suicides.

I’m not alone in recognizing the serious and urgent nature of this situation. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Additionally, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has released an advisory focused on supporting youth mental health, in which he writes: “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”

Arguably, one of the greatest challenges schools now face is the sheer number of students in our schools who are in need of mental health services. Schools already struggled to provide sufficient counseling and resources to those students, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this shortage. Courageous teachers and counselors are doing their best to address children’s mental health needs in the face of underfunding and understaffing. We must provide schools with additional resources, which we can do through a change in federal policy.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a federal agency that has been supporting invaluable, lifesaving mental health programs for decades. However, while direct funding assistance from SAMHSA is currently available for colleges and universities, the agency has never been allowed to provide these resources directly to K-12 school districts.

That’s why I’m working to pass the Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act. This bipartisan legislation, which I wrote and introduced with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), would finally authorize SAMHSA to fund comprehensive, equitable, and evidence-based resources and programs in K-12 schools to promote student mental health, support students in crisis, and help prevent student suicides. This bill would support a wide range of mental health evaluation, planning, programming, and suicide prevention strategies in our schools, including through the use of training programs for students and school staff to respond effectively to mental health challenges, and telehealth to conduct suicide risk and mental health screenings.

During a recent Senate hearing, I asked mental health experts whether making this change would be an effective solution toward addressing the mental health crisis, and the response was resoundingly positive. This legislation has also garnered the support of the American Psychological Association, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Trevor Project, and many other student and mental health advocacy organizations — including school districts across my state of Nevada.

Amid this student mental health crisis, this bipartisan bill with growing support would be a major step in the right direction for our kids. I won’t stop fighting until we take action.

Jacky Rosen is a Democratic Senator from Nevada and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — which oversees health and education issues.

Tags COVID-19 Jacky Rosen Lisa Murkowski student mental health Vivek Murthy

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