Children in Louisiana are in the midst of a mental health crisis, struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels, according to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
of Child Census 2022 Data Book ranks Louisiana 49 out of 50 in child well-being based on economic, education, health, family and community well-being.
“I’m not surprised by these numbers, especially because of the pandemic,” said Marie Collins, executive director of Family Tree of Acadiana. “We live in a state that tends to be more rural, so access to care is very difficult to begin with, and then you add the parameters of the pandemic — I think the big thing we’re seeing right now is that kids are affected because of parents. They’re completely dependent, in most cases, on their parents, and so the parents are struggling, and that’s their frame of reference.”
It is the first time the annual resource, which includes data from the first year of the pandemic, has focused on young people’s mental health. The report shows a 26% increase nationally in anxiety and depression by 2020, creating what the US surgeon general has called a “mental health pandemic”.
Although Louisiana actually improved in 10 of the 16 measures tracked in the annual Data Book, the state continues to rank among the worst in the nation in all but four indicators.
The state’s top rankings — ninth for few young children out of school and 17th for few children without health insurance — reflect federal and state commitments to provide children with access to those essential services.
“Our state has the power to put children on the path to success by connecting them to the right mental health care and early intervention services,” said Jen Roberts, CEO of Louisiana nonprofit Agenda for Children. “Unfortunately, Louisiana’s children are not only dealing with the one-two punch of a pandemic followed by the devastation of Hurricane Ida, they also face the challenge of trying to find adequate mental health care in a state where three in every four inhabitants. in an area with a shortage of mental health care providers.”
Children across America were more likely to experience anxiety or depression during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis than before, according to the Data Book.
About 10% of Louisiana children between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with depression or anxiety in 2020, the report said.
“I believe we’re wired to connect with other people,” said Roy Petitfils, a Lafayette adolescent psychotherapist. “People who are wired for a great need for human connection have really, really, really struggled. One of the things I saw in kids who would have come in pre-pandemic and said, “I’m not connected to anybody,” came in during the pandemic and said, “I was connected to more people than I thought I was.”
Petitfils said it’s difficult for experts to isolate the pandemic from the political upheaval that occurred during the pandemic when analyzing the data, noting that “sociologists are going to have a field day with this for the next 100 years.”
Julie Kaplow, executive director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said social isolation isn’t the only lasting effect the pandemic will have on Louisiana’s youth. Trauma and loss are major predictors of other mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior.
Many Louisiana children and teens continue to struggle with grief and guilt over the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.
“Kids in their schools say things that maybe aren’t intentionally cruel, but things like ‘Why didn’t your dad get vaccinated?’ Or ‘Your grandma should have worn a mask’ or things that are very judgmental,” Kaplow said. “And, in fact, we even had a little girl say, ‘I killed my mom’ because she came home from school and had COVID, and then three weeks later her mother died of COVID.”
Kaplow, a child and adolescent psychologist who splits her time between Louisiana and Texas, said there is an initiative her team is launching in Houston called the Handle with Care program, which she hopes to roll out within a year in the New Orleans area.
The program features a streamlined process for an officer who finds a child at the scene of a traumatic event – such as a murder, suicide or domestic dispute. The officer reports the incident to the child’s school, which then notifies the teacher, who is trained to handle the child with care and look for signs of psychological distress.
“If they see any of those signs, the child is immediately referred for intervention either within the school with the school counselor or with an external partner health care provider,” Kaplow said. “What we’re seeing is that the sooner we identify these kids and the sooner we get them into care, the more effective the intervention is and the less likely that child is to go on to develop more serious problems . The keys are early identification and early intervention.”
Louisiana mental health experts say it’s still unclear how much of an impact the pandemic will have on the well-being of those they serve, especially children and teens.
“The benefit of COVID is that it caused people to seek mental health services, some who may have never sought mental health services in their lives,” Petitfils said. “And so there’s a group of allies now that are helping to destigmatize counseling.”
To help children, Louisiana leaders must also help the adults around the children.
“We need to connect kids with adults who are also getting the necessary mental health support they need,” Kaplow said. “And so often when children are experiencing trauma and loss, the adults in their lives have also experienced that loss, but may be more focused on taking care of their children without focusing on what they really need. So, time and time again, we’re preaching this idea of parents putting their oxygen mask on first—taking care of themselves, making sure they’re getting therapy if they need therapy, addressing their trauma and issues of related to grief. That’s just as important as giving their child the mental health care they need.”
The Casey Foundation calls on lawmakers to prioritize the following to improve the mental health of children and adolescents:
Meeting the basic needs of children with a strong foundation of nutritious food, stable housing, safe neighborhoods and financial stability for their families
Ensuring every child has access to the mental health care they need, when and where they need it by adding school counselors and coordinating treatment with local health care providers and governments
Strengthening mental health care that takes into account young people’s experiences and identities, informed by the latest evidence and oriented towards early intervention
Resources for those suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns
Baton Rouge area
New Orleans area