About 2,200 more children in Hawaii struggled with anxiety and depression in 2020 — a 23% increase from 2016, according to a statewide study released Monday.
of Child Census 2022 Data Bookwhich tracks state trends related to children, found that Hawaii ranks in the bottom third of the United States when it comes to the educational (35th) and economic (34th) well-being of children, who were were disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to high unemployment in the islands at the time.
The report was released ahead of Hawaii’s primary election on Saturday, and advocates said they hoped policymakers and candidates would pay attention.
“It’s a good time because kids are just going back to school in Hawaii and just to remind leaders that we need to focus not only on catching kids up academically, but making sure they’re OK with their mental health, Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said in an interview.
“We all know the pandemic has been really hard on our kids,” Woo added. “They couldn’t go to school for a year, a lot of activities were canceled and they couldn’t see their friends.” The Hawaii Children’s Action Network was a state partner for the report.
The annual survey, published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked states on 16 indicators in four categories. of the island nation fared better in terms of rankings for health (fifth) and family and community (15th), according to the report, which measured data from 2016 to 2020 to assess the effects of the pandemic.
Hawaii received an overall ranking of 22nd, up four spots from the 2021 report, which compared statistics from 2010 to 2019. But advocates expressed particular concern about mental health as the report estimated that 5.9% of of children aged 3 to 17 had anxiety or depression in 2020, compared to 4.8% in 2016.
David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of the nonprofit HawaiiKidsCan, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.
“We are prepared for a perfect storm of challenges,” said Sun-Miyashiro. “Even before the pandemic, we weren’t necessarily doing our best in terms of taking care of our children and families.”
The report noted that Hawaii’s children suffered disproportionately during the early stages of the pandemic amid school closures and restrictions that essentially shut down the state’s main tourism industry, leading to record high unemployment.
Ivette Stern of the Center for the Family at the University of Hawaii said the report raises alarm.
“We know from research that children growing up in families experiencing economic hardship feel the brunt of that stress,” Stern said. “That’s why we absolutely must support Hawaii’s families, achieve economic security and improve access.”
Hawaii was in the bottom 10 states for several key measures, including findings that 72% of eighth graders scored below proficient levels in math, about 9% of 16- to 19-year-olds were not in school or work and 37% of all children in the state lived in households that spent more than a third of their income on housing.
Woo said there have been legislative efforts in the past to make sure school psychologists are credentialed AND well paid, but these measures failed. She added that her organization would support those bills again if they are introduced next year.
“Anything our legislature, our governor, our county councils can do to make sure parents can afford their housing and make ends meet will help relieve mental stress on children and makes sure they are able to thrive academically.” she added.
With a budget surplus, Hawaii lawmakers allocated billions of dollars to initiatives aimed at helping families cope with the state’s high cost of living, and the governor signed a law providing $100-$300 in tax credits.
But advocates said more needs to be done.
Sun-Miyashiro welcomed him tax deductions approved this year but said he would like it to go up to $1,000 for needy families.
“I think as we see from this ranking, we can’t just rely on the status quo,” he said.
“There’s a lot of good work going on in the state right now,” he continued. “A lot of schools are working hard around career paths and career readiness opportunities for students, but there’s definitely a lot of work to do.”