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Awash in federal money, California and other states tackle worsening youth mental health

Christine Vestal, The Pew Charitable Trusts | March 29, 2023

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First graders at Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in Cudahy, Calif., participate in a pep rally on the playground. States are using billions in federal relief money to improve mental health services in schools. (Getty Images)

The pandemic accelerated a yearslong decline in the mental health of the nation’s children and teens. The number of young people experiencing sadness, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide 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 the symptoms of mental illness and suicide risk and build support services to help students who are struggling.

Flush with federal pandemic relief grants, some schools also are creating programs they hope will foster emotional well-being for students 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 education money is allocated to states based on their school-age population. But 90% of the money is then sent to school districts, which typically have wide leeway to decide how to use it.

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

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

In February, North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper declared that the state would spend $7.7 million to provide suicide prevention training for university and community college personnel, create a mental health hotline for students and develop resiliency 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.

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

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

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

February data from the CDC shows that “mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors” rose sharply during the pandemic among all teens, 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 U.S. Department of Education. And only a little more than half of the schools said they felt their school could effectively provide the mental health services students needed.

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

This year, data collected by nonprofit mental health advocates Mental Health America indicates that nearly 60% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment.

To address the crisis, the Biden administration this month proposed a budget that includes $428 million in education and mental health grants states could use to help students who already are struggling with mental illness and to create programs aimed at improving the emotional well-being of all students. Congress would need to approve the money.

At the same time, 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 Congress passed in the wake of the June 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

In addition to 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 relief funds, part of pandemic aid Congress approved 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 to spend on mental health.

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

“There never has been sufficient funding to meet the mental health needs of our communities, and certainly not our children,” said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots nonprofit organization that advocates for people affected by mental illness.

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

To build and sustain 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 emotional well-being supports in schools for all students, not just those who are suffering the most. We need supports for everybody.

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

This article originally appeared at Statelinean initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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