Flush with federal money, state lawmakers are tackling the deteriorating mental health of young people

The pandemic has accelerated a years-long decline in the mental health of the nation’s children and teens. The number of young people experiencing 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 dollars and their own money to launch programs to help students and teachers recognize symptoms of mental illness and suicide risk and build support services. to help struggling students.

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

Typically, federal money for education is distributed to states based on their school-age population. But 90 percent of the money is then sent to school districts, which typically have wide latitude to decide how to use it.

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

This month, for example, New York City’s Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, announced a sweeping mental health agenda that includes a youth suicide prevention program.

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In February, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, announced that the state would spend $7.7 million to provide suicide prevention training for university and community college staff, establish a mental health hotline for students and developed 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 with the greatest need.

Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee introduced a $7.2 million program to train K-12 school officials to detect mental illness and suicide risk, respond to it, and connect students and families with social services in the community.

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

And Arizona, California and South Carolina have raised Medicaid reimbursement levels to incentivize behavioral health providers to provide services in schools, according to a February report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.


February data from the CDC showed that “mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors” increased sharply during the pandemic among all teens, but especially 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 study by the Institute of Education Sciences, a data analysis arm of the U.S. Department of Education. And just over half of schools said they believed their school could effectively provide the mental health services students needed.

Even before the pandemic, one-fifth of children ages 3 to 17 had a mental, emotional, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to a December 2021 report from the US Surgeon General. Globally, symptoms of depression and anxiety among children and youth have doubled during the pandemic, according to the report.

This year, data compiled by the nonprofit mental health advocate Mental Health America shows that nearly 60 percent of youth with major depression are not receiving any 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 already struggling with mental illness and create programs aimed at improving the emotional well-being of all students. Congress would have to approve the money.

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

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

Mental health advocates have long lamented the lack of federal and state funding to support school mental health programs. Federal aid dollars to combat the learning loss and emotional distress caused by the pandemic, they say, represent an unprecedented opportunity for states to bolster school mental health resources that have been severely underfunded for decades.

“There has never been enough funding to address the mental health needs of our communities, and certainly not our children,” said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocate at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with mental problems illness.

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

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 to take a public health approach — like seat belts 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 one thing COVID has taught us, it’s that our children’s mental health and their ability to learn are inextricably linked.”

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