They are not. Society is not. But new DOE guidance on mental health offers a roadmap for change.
Members of the East African Maasai tribe are said to greet one another with that same question, “Eserian nakera,” which means “And how are the children?” To which they would reply, “All the children are well.” They know that if the children are well, life is good. If the children are well, their society has not forgotten its core responsibility of taking care of and protecting their young. If the children are well, it is a sign of a functioning and prosperous tribe whose existence will live on and carry their stories forward.
Imagine if this is how we regularly greeted one another—if the measures of how well we were doing as a society were based on the health and happiness of our children. What would we say about our children now? What would other societies say about us and the current state of our children’s health?
Some children are more vulnerable.
Right now, we cannot say that all the children are well. We cannot say the adults are well. NPR reported, during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, children have experienced greater rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality as they have been impacted by grief, economic instability, and isolation from friends and social supports. More than 140,000 children lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID, over 65 percent of whom were children of color. And, the impacts of pandemic-related challenges have only been exacerbated by recent racial and political tensions.
Children with disabilities have seen their challenges compound. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, seven million or 14 percent of public school students receive special education services; three million have been diagnosed with a serious emotional or behavioral health condition. Of children with behavioral and mental health needs, 80 percent rely on school-based services. So when schools shut down, many students were left without the life lines they so desperately needed and at a time when mental health professionals were already in short supply. In 2020, it was estimated that there was a shortage of nearly 15,000 school psychologists.
The worsening of children’s mental health led to a coalition formed by the nation’s leading providers of pediatric healthcare to declare the current state of children’s mental health a national crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry released a statement saying “The worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020.”
While we have certainly seen these trends increase since the beginning of the pandemic, children’s mental health issues have been on the rise over the last decade. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 2007 and -2018, the rates of suicide among those aged 10–24 increased 57 percent with 42 percent of states reporting significant increases. In 2018, it was the second leading cause of death for that age group.
Here is how we can support them.
So while we cannot confidently say our children are well now, the good news is that we know how to support them so they can be. We can’t undo the trauma or experiences over the last few years, but we can provide the interventions, services, and supports our kids need to heal and be healthy.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released guidance titled, Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health in an effort to elevate the importance of mental health among students and provide key recommendations schools can use to address the social-emotional aspect of learning and development.
Both the U.S. Department of Education guidance and the declaration from health care providers lay out recommendations for addressing the mental health needs of our kids, including:
- Reduce regulatory barriers and utilize teletherapy to provide mental and behavioral health supports
- Increase federal funding dedicated to ensuring children, from infancy through young adulthood, can access mental health screening and treatment
- Strengthen efforts to reduce the risk of suicide in children and adolescents through primary prevention programs
- Reduce the barrier of stigma of mental health treatment and encourage the use of telehealth which allows for opportunities for students to seek care
- Fund comprehensive, community-based systems of care that connect children and families with evidence-based interventions in their home, community, or school
The Biden administration also recently announced $85 million in funding for mental health education, training, and treatment to help ensure children have access to the care they need. This won’t solve it all, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. For once, mental health funding, resources, and programs are getting the much overdue attention they deserve.
Our collective community leaders—our health care providers, education experts and teachers, and parents and caregivers—are telling us our children need help. Our children are telling us they do not feel well. We need to listen to them. We need to act on their behalf. We need to center our kids in every decision we make because what is best for them, is also best for the tribe.
If you are a school or policymaker interested in how teletherapy can help to support schools in your area, get in touch today for a free consultation. For more by Kelly Wolfe, read her other recent articles, Advocating for Children or How States Can Open Up Access to Teletherapy.