The pandemic accelerated a years-long decline in the mental health of the nation’s children and adolescents. The number of young people experiencing sadness, depression and suicidal thoughts has increased dramatically, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In response, states, cities and school districts are using COVID-19 relief dollars and their own money to launch programs to help students and teachers recognize symptoms of mental illness and suicide risk and build support services to help students who are struggling.
Flush with federal grants for pandemic relief, some schools are also creating programs they hope will foster emotional well-being for students and increase their sense of connection to their schools and communities, said Sharon Hoover, co-director of National Center for School Mental Health. .
Typically, federal education money is allocated to states based on their school-age population. But 90% of the money it is then sent to school districtswhich usually have wide discretion in deciding how to use it.
Some states and cities are also adding their own money to fund youth mental health projects.
This month, for example, the Democratic mayor of New York, Eric Adams announced a broad mental health agenda that includes a youth suicide prevention program.
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In February, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper DECLARING that the state would spend $7.7 million to provide suicide prevention training for university and community college staff, establish a student mental health hotline and develop resiliency training for faculty, staff and students.
In January, New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy discovered a $14 million mental health grant program targeting K-12 schools with the greatest need.
And Rhode Island’s Democratic governor, Daniel McKee presented a $7.2 million program to train K-12 school employees to detect mental illness and suicide risk, respond to it, and connect students and families with community social services.
Last year, Illinois, Iowa and Maryland started programs to provide mental health training to school personnel.
And Arizona, California and South Carolina raised Medicaid reimbursement rates to encourage behavioral health providers to offer services in schools, according to a February. REPORT by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
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February data from the CDC shows that “mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors” increased significantly. during the pandemic among all adolescents, but especially among girls.
More than two-thirds of public schools reported an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services, according to an April poll from the Institute of Education Sciences, the data analysis arm of the US Department of Education. And just over half of schools said they felt their school could effectively provide the mental health services students needed.
Even before the pandemic, one-fifth of children ages 3 to 17 had a mental, emotional, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to a December 2021 report by the US Surgeon General. Globally, symptoms of depression and anxiety among children and young adults doubled during the pandemic, according to the report.
This year, data collected by mental health advocacy nonprofit Mental Health America shows that almost 60% of young people with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment.
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To address the crisis, the Biden administration this month proposed a budget that includes $428 million in education and mental health grants that states can use to help students already struggling with mental illness and create programs aimed at improving emotional well-being of all. students. Congress would have to approve the money.
At the same time, K-12 schools are slated to receive $1 billion in grants over the next five years to curb the rise of mental illness and violence in schools, according to a bipartisan bill Congress passed it in the wake of the June 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
In addition to the new funding, state and local officials have until Sept. 30 to decide how to use their share of the remaining $54.3 billion in education aid funds, part of the pandemic aid Congress passed in 2020. And they have until September 30, 2024, to decide how much of the remaining $122.8 billion in education grants under America’s Rescue Plan The Mental Health Spending Act of 2021.
Mental health advocates have long railed against the lack of federal and state funding to support school mental health programs. Federal aid dollars to combat the learning loss and emotional distress caused by the pandemic, they say, present an unprecedented opportunity for states to bolster school mental health resources that have been severely underfunded for decades.
“There has never been enough funding to meet the mental health needs of our communities, and certainly not of our children,” said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for people affected. from mental illness. disease.
“Now that we have this conglomeration of factors affecting children’s mental health — including the pandemic, social media and a wave of state legislation that is harmful to LGBTQ youth — we don’t have a solid system to fall back on,” she said. .
To build and sustain such a system, Hoover said, states, schools and communities will need to better balance their investments in academics with their investments in mental health.
Ultimately, Hoover said, “the hope is that we take a public health approach — like seat belts in cars — to supporting emotional well-being in schools for all students, not just those who suffer the most. We have need support for all.
“If there’s anything that COVID taught us, it’s that our children’s mental health and their ability to learn are inextricably linked.”
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