Can bipartisan consensus yield action on youth mental health crisis?

FILE – Angel Cardenas, a freshman at Hiram Johnson High School, wears his mask as he works on a math worksheet, Monday, June 6, 2022, the first day of the return to mandatory masking at all Sacramento City Unified School District sites, in Sacramento, Calif. Despite a year of disruptions, students largely made academic gains this past year that paralleled their growth pre-pandemic and outpaced the previous school year, according to new research released Tuesday, July 19, 2022, from NWEA, a nonprofit research group that administers standardized tests. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)

Kids have been through so much since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were isolated, often relying on a small screen to communicate with friends, teachers, coaches and others. Many watched their families struggle with financial insecurity, wondering how they might afford housing and food. Most devastating of all: More than 200,000 lost a parent or primary caregiver.

And while our children endured these unprecedented challenges with strength and resilience, we cannot ignore the trauma these last two and a half years have caused. Mental health challenges among children and youth have risen sharply, leading the U.S. surgeon general to declare that the country is facing a youth mental health crisis.

The number of U.S. children experiencing anxiety or depression jumped 26 percent between 2016 and 2020, according to the “2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book” from my organization the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which tracks the well-being of children in every state. That’s an additional 1.5 million children who are struggling. 

Youth of color and LGBTQ young people appear to have seen the most serious effects. The rate of Black high school students and students of two or more races who attempted suicide was significantly higher than the national average. The rate was highest among LGBTQ and Native American students, with nearly one in four having attempting suicide in the previous year.

While none of these issues are new, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated them and shined a light on the many contributing factors. 

When families cannot meet their basic needs, their children’s mental, physical and emotional health suffer. Inadequate access to food, housing and early education can influence a child’s brain development, behavior and readiness to learn. And when families lack health care, children are less likely to access critical mental health services that can help them address issues and avoid crisis. 

The good news is that elected leaders from both major parties have begun to recognize the importance of these issues. Since March 2020, states have passed nearly 100 bills focused on youth mental health. In June, the president signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which aims to significantly expand access to mental health care for young people. 

While these are much-needed steps, solving the youth mental health crisis requires a look at the underlying causes and more comprehensive solutions. We must ensure our children have a solid foundation of nutritious food, stable housing and safe neighborhoods — and that their families have financial stability — to foster positive mental health and wellness.

We must expand mental health services to children and young people, when and where they need them, including in schools. We need to bolster mental health care that takes into account young people’s experiences and identities. We must also make sure every child in America has health insurance to afford mental health services, that they are easily accessible and that they take into account their unique experiences and identities.

Whatever our differences, we are united in the desire to ensure the safety, health and well-being of our children. The bipartisan majorities supporting state and federal legislation on youth mental health demonstrate that we can come together to deal with difficult issues. Let’s build on that momentum and provide the full scope of resources that contribute to mental well-being. 

In the last two years, our children have shown us how to be strong, how to endure, to weather, to adapt and rebound. We must give all children access to the mental health care they need, when and where they need it so they can feel healthy, safe and ready to thrive.

Now is the right moment for bipartisan action that can make a long-term impact on the health and well-being of our nation’s youth. Our leaders should strengthen our systems so they fully support children and families and give young people every opportunity to realize their potential.

Lisa M. Hamilton is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Tags bipartisan Coronavirus COVID-19 Education Mental health Youth youth mental health

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