10 solutions schools can champion to address a national mental health emergency

More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color most heavily impacted
By: | October 21, 2021

The surge in students struggling with mental health concerns over the last few years has now reached crisis levels, a coalition of pediatricians, psychiatrists and hospitals warned education leaders this week.

Children and adolescents are suffering what equates to a national mental health emergency that is being fueled by the “enormous adversity and disruption” brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, says the declaration issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association.

“We have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic,” the declaration says. “The inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color,” they said.

Here are a few things school administrators need to know:

  • More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color most heavily impacted, the organizations say.
  • Rates of childhood mental health problems and suicide have were already rising substantially in the decade before COVID struck
  • In 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 10 to 24.
  • Since the COVID outbreak, emergency rooms have seen dramatic increases in visits for suspected suicide attempts and other mental health emergencies.
  • Treating the long-term impacts caused by soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality will require state, local and national leaders to take innovative action to improve the access to and quality of adolescent mental health care at all levels and across all communities.

“The pandemic has struck at the safety and stability of families,” the declaration says. “The challenges facing children and adolescents are so widespread that we call on policymakers at all levels of government and advocates for children and adolescents to join us in this declaration.”

Since the COVID outbreak, the nonprofit research organization Child Trends has been sharing steps school administrators can take to support students in distress, including expanding professional development for teachers in trauma-informed care and acknowledging that some communities have been hit harder by the events of the past 18 months.

This week’s declaration covers steps that federal, state and local policymakers can take to begin to address the problem. Here are 10 solutions school administration may want to advocate for:

  1. Increase federal funding to ensure all families and children have access to quality mental health treatment from infancy through adolescence. Particular emphasis must be placed on meeting the needs of under-resourced populations.
  2. Address regulatory challenges and improve access to technology to give all families have access to mental health care through telemedicine.
  3. Fund and expand effective models of school-based mental health care, including clinical strategies and models for payment.
  4. Accelerate adoption of models for integrated mental health care in primary care pediatrics.
  5. Strengthen emerging efforts to reduce the risk of suicide in children and adolescents through school- and community-based prevention programs.
  6. Fully fund comprehensive, community-based systems of care that connect families in need of behavioral health services with interventions in their home, community or school.
  7. Fund trauma-informed care services that support relational health and family resilience.
  8. Solve workforce shortage in child mental health by creating innovative training programs, college loan repayment, and intensifying efforts to recruit underrepresented populations into health care professions.
  9. Increase the number of hospitals and emergency beds available by expanding “step-down programs” from inpatient units, short-stay stabilization units, and community-based response teams.
  10. Advance policies that ensure compliance with and enforcement of mental health parity laws.