August Policy & Advocacy Update

Back to School: Are We Ready to Support Children’s Mental Health? 

Written by James Curtin, Chief Business & Government Relations Officer, Acenda

The subject of children’s mental health has never been considered as widely and greatly in our country prior to the pandemic and continues today as well as it should. 

Beyond being a major concern for parents who are most assuredly attempting to handle their own mental health concerns spurred on by the pandemic, the Federal Government, all states, and policy makers in general, have spent an unprecedented amount of money to address children’s mental health. School administrators have also realized that there currently is no better investment in our youth than what many school districts and state governments refer to as school-based youth mental health services because they have learned the valuable lesson that you cannot ignore a student’s mental health because each student always carries it around with them. There is no room for pretending that school is not the place to address mental health.  

The CDC reports that in the United States, mental disorders affect at least one in five children year and by the age of 18, two in five children will meet the criteria of a mental disorder. The prevalence of mental disorders has been assessed using national surveillance systems and community-based studies.  

It needs to be underscored that the article above speaks to “normal” times and not to data taken from the pandemic years. We know that children, especially children living in black and brown communities, have been devastated since March 2020.  

Right here in New Jersey, our youngest residents are showing up more often to ERs and other hospital inpatient settings due to anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other behavioral health complaints. This too has been widely reported. We’ve seen reports indicating that adolescent females have also been disproportionately affected evidenced by ER visits, suicide attempts, and self-reports.  

According to Dr. Hillary Cohen of Englewood Health, “These aren’t cases you can follow up with on an outpatient basis, these are individuals in an acute mental health crisis that requires hospitalization,” she said. “And these also aren’t patients who are 16, 17, or 18 years old, it’s increasingly those 10, 11, and 12 years old in which we’re seeing a higher level of acuity.” 

Cohen said the bump behavioral health providers are experiencing in the volume of youth and adolescents in crisis exceeds pre-pandemic levels. It’s not leveling off or on the retreat. 

As our kids head back to school, we, as a country, have so much riding on connecting with students and their emotional well-being from the time they walk through the doors of our schools.  

The field of behavioral health has learned that care must be integrated for positive outcomes for individuals, families, and for communities.  Because let’s not forget that all of the above are inextricably linked when it comes to mental health. Integrated care refers to ensuring that physical and emotional health are simultaneously addressed. This approach to treatment has proven to be an evidence-based practice.  

I feel very strongly that when it comes to providing integrated mental health support and treatment to students, the educators, administrators, and guidance counselors must be competent members of the team having at least a basic understanding of children’s mental health. Training is imperative! 

Now I know that some licensed clinicians will take exception given a teacher’s education is not meant to equip them with the skills needed to help people suffering from anxiety, depression, and/or suicidal ideation. And I agree.  

However, school-based youth mental health services can be so much more engaging and effective if kids do not get missed during times of internal emotional crisis.  

Stigma in school-based mental health services must be tackled head-on by the school board, the administration, school personnel, and by the parents of students who have become enlightened to the reality that children suffering emotionally are not always the result of parental failure. I can tell you as a past President of a private school that a greater proportion of young people versus providers have always reported stigma as the largest barrier to accessing mental health services. In addition, most young people will tell you that school-based mental health resources were scarce. I would also agree with this. Creative campaigns targeted toward students, parents, and even school-based personnel are paramount in creating a necessary openness so that students and parents can readily not only ask for help but access it when needed. 

Beyond addressing stigma head-on, school boards must prioritize the mental health of their student body, and also prioritizing mental health support for teachers and other personnel is vital to ensure that all aspects of this approach are successful.  

Obviously, funding for these programs is necessary, and although the Federal Government has funded states at levels never before seen prior to this fiscal year, much more is necessary.  

So, as each school district gets ready to have all students back at their desks for the first time in two years, let’s ensure we’re all ready to embrace our next generation.