Addressing “national emergency” in youth mental health

Photo by ketan pics via Flickr.

A pandemic-fueled surge in mental illness among children and teens, including some disorders driving youth violence and disruptions at school, has been the subject of several news headlines.

This October 2021 Washington Post article cited a string of assaults, including against school security officers, after schools reopened last fall to what educators and other experts say is an extraordinary level of mental distress among youth. (That same article cited National Association of School Resource Officers reports of 97 gun-related incidents in schools from August 1, 2020, to October 1, 2020; up from 29 such incidents during the same period in 2019.)

This June 2020 Voice of America article spotlighted a United Nations report about global spikes in online bullying, harassment and such during remote learning, and the anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders that those assaults triggered. (Conversely, this July 2021 paper, published by the Brown University Annenberg Institute for School Reform but not in a peer-reviewed journal, suggests that bullying and cyberbullying declined during COVID-19.)

The situation is so severe in the collective eyes of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association that those organizations, in October 2021, jointly declared the worsening state of youth mental health a national emergency. They especially noted, among other realities, that “more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted.”

As schools have resumed in-person learning and what many are calling a COVID-fueled new normal is emerging, the mental and behavioral health of students remain top of mind. The University of Maryland School of Medicine’s National Center for School Mental Health is hosting a series of webinars on mental health among students, parents and educators through June 2022. 

Also, partnering with the National Association of School Nurses, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Mental Health Services in Pediatric Primary Care and Sacramento State University School of Nursing, the University of Maryland’s national center trains school nurses and other school personnel on how to assist troubled students. That training is happening amid what the National Association of School Psychologists say is a shortage of professionals with their pedigree. It recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students but reports that the ratio ranges from one per 1,211 to one per 5,000, depending on which state is being measured.

In addition to the information presented above, the following initiatives are also fodder for news coverage on this front:

  • The American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program provides funding for expanded and new student mental and behavioral health programs.
  • In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued its “New Resource on Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health during COVID-19 Era.”
  • Mitigating the Threat of School Violence as the U.S. “Returns to Normal” from the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond” is a federal Department of Homeland Security public awareness bulletin. 
  • Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-olds, especially girls, started rising in May 2020, according to a June 2021 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Comparing Feb 21, 2020, to March 20, 2021, against Feb. 21, 2021, and March 20, 2021, analysts found that girls’ emergency visits for suspected suicide attempts had risen 50.6%. The suspected number for boys was 3.7%.

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