Flooded with federal money, state lawmakers are tackling deteriorating youth mental health

The pandemic has accelerated a years-long decline in the mental health of the country’s children and adolescents. The number of young people suffering from sadness, hopelessness 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 funds and their own money to launch programs to help students and teachers recognize symptoms of mental illness and suicide risk and to set up support services to help students in difficulty.

Through federal pandemic relief grants, some schools are also creating programs they hope will promote students’ emotional well-being and increase their sense of connection to their schools and communities, said Sharon Hoover, co-director. from the National Center for School Mental Health. .

Generally, federal funds for education are allocated to states based on their school-age population. But 90% of the money then goes to school districts, which usually have a lot of latitude in deciding how to use it.

Some states and cities also add their own money to fund youth mental health projects.

This month, for example, New York Democratic Mayor Eric Adams announced a sweeping mental health program that includes a youth suicide prevention program.

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In February, Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the state would spend $7.7 million to provide suicide prevention training to university and community college staff, create a line of mental health helpline for students and developing resilience training for faculty, staff and students.

In January, New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a $14 million mental health grant program that targets K-12 schools that need it the most.

And Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee launched a $7.2 million program to train K-12 school workers to detect, respond to mental illness and suicide risk, and connect students. and families to community social services.

Last year, Illinois, Iowa and Maryland launched programs to provide mental health training to school staff.

And Arizona, California and South Carolina increased Medicaid reimbursement rates to incentivize behavioral health care providers to provide services in schools, according to a February report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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February data from the CDC shows that “mental health problems, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors” have risen sharply during the pandemic among all adolescents, but particularly 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 survey by 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 aged 3 to 17 suffered from a mental, emotional, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to a December 2021 report from the US Surgeon General. Globally, symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and young people have doubled during the pandemic, according to the report.

This year, data collected by nonprofit mental health advocates Mental Health America indicates that nearly 60 percent of young people with major depression do not receive 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 could use to help students who already suffer from mental illness. and to create programs aimed at improving the emotional well-being of all. students. Congress would have to approve the money.

Meanwhile, K-12 schools are set to receive $1 billion in grants over the next five years to stem the rise of mental illness and violence in schools, under a project bipartisan bill passed by Congress following the June 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde. , Texas.

In addition to the new funding, state and local officials have until September 30 to decide how to use their share of the remaining $54.3 billion in education relief funds, part of the pandemic relief approved by the Congress in 2020. And they have until Sept. 30, 2024, to decide how much of the remaining $122.8 billion in education grants under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will be spent on mental health. .

Mental health advocates have long lamented the lack of federal and state funding to support mental health programs in schools. Federal relief dollars to address learning loss and emotional distress caused by the pandemic, they say, offer states an unprecedented opportunity to bolster mental health resources in schools that have been grossly underfunded for decades.

“There has never been enough funding to meet the mental health needs of our communities, and certainly not our children,” said Hannah Wesolowski, advocacy manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization nonprofit that advocates for those affected by mental illness. disease.

“Now that we have this confluence of factors affecting children’s mental health – including the pandemic, social media and a wave of state legislation harmful to LGBTQ youth – we don’t have a strong system to fall back on,” said she declared.

To build and maintain 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 seatbelts in cars — to support emotional well-being in schools for all students, not just those who suffer the most. We need support for everyone.

“If there’s anything COVID has taught us, it’s that our children’s mental health and their ability to learn are inextricably linked.”

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