Analysis: Most states not ready to tackle youth mental health ahead of fall

Analysis: Most states not ready to tackle youth mental health ahead of fall
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A Tuesday report from advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) says that a majority of states are not ready to address youth mental health as schools prepare to reopen for in-person learning in the fall. 

The analysis reports that just 14 states have fully expanded Medicaid to cover mental health services in schools, and only a handful have legislation requiring mental health education.

The lack of access and education make the states unprepared to deal with mental health issues among children, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, the report said. 

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It calls for state and federal officials to prioritize improving mental health education, support and services in schools as the back-to-school season approaches.

MHA’s analysis did praise several states for their work in enhancing school-based mental health services, including Oregon for allowing mental health as an excuse for absences and New York and Virginia for requiring mental health education. 

“Although some states have led the way, no state has fully enacted a set of laws and policies that would comprehensively improve youth mental health,” the report reads.

The report recommends the development of a national strategy to approach youth mental health based on successful state programs, said Mary Giliberti, MHA’s executive vice president of policy.

“This is a national problem, and it needs a national response, and it needs a response, frankly, at every level of government,” she said. 

Art McCoy, superintendent emeritus of Jennings School District in St. Louis, said that a national playbook is necessary to set expectations and targets for states.

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“Without that nationally, you get Swiss cheese across the country with holes in it,” said McCoy, who is a member of the MHA Board of Directors. “And the sheer fact of the matter is that everyone deserves to be supported.”

The majority of states also do not meet the recommended ratio of students to mental health professionals, according to the analysis, making it difficult to address students’ needs. 

Recent high school graduate Ben Ballman advocated for more mental health professionals in his school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, after researching how high the average number of students per counselor is.

“That's just not possible to build a relationship with each of the students, be there for each of the students and see which of the students are struggling,” Ballman said. 

Children of color are more likely to receive school-based mental health services than white children, so limited resources can also lead to disparities in who is getting care.

Although Black and Latino children are less likely than white children to get mental health treatment for depression, they made up the largest increases in the proportion of youth experiencing suicidal ideation between 2019 and 2020, the report said.

Advocates say the coronavirus pandemic worsened an already existing mental health crisis devastating young people. The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported a past-year major depressive episode doubled over 10 years, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 

Last year saw a 628 percent increase in 11- to 17-year-olds who took a mental health screening through MHA compared to 2019. The age group also recorded higher rates of anxiety and depression than adults.

In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recorded a rise in suspected suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls early this year compared to pre-pandemic levels.