Teenage mental health was already deteriorating before the coronavirus pandemic. In the two years since, the isolation, grief and anxiety created by school closures, deaths and loss of family income have led to an even steeper decline in children’s mental health, according to the experts.
Awash in federal pandemic relief money — about $190 billion in grants for education and health over the next four years — states are responding.
Last year, 38 states enacted nearly 100 laws providing additional resources to support mental wellness in K-12 schools, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, a Portland-based policy research group. , Maine. Dozens of additional school mental health bills have become law this year in at least 22 states, according to the group.
“This is a huge increase in legislative activity compared to anything we’ve seen in recent years,” said Tramaine EL-Amin, customer experience manager at the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, a non-profit organization that represents mental health providers.
“The pandemic has shone a light on the mental health of our children,” she said. “There’s no doubt this is something we need to pay attention to and need to act on fairly quickly so things don’t get worse.”
Broadly speaking, the new state laws aim to improve schools’ mental health resources and create comprehensive plans to prevent teen suicides and promote the mental well-being of children.
A central theme in many new laws inspired by the pandemic is mental health training.
At least 16 states, from Alaska to Massachusetts, in addition to the District of Columbia, now require K-12 teachers and other school staff to complete training courses on how to recognize distress mentality in students and what to do when they see it.
California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have enacted new laws recommending high school students take mental health training classes so they can help their friends, their family and classmates.
“Teachers are key in identifying students who need mental health support,” said Nancy Lever, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“But we also need to ensure that parents and other school staff who interact with students are trained to recognize mental health crises and understand how trauma affects children’s mental health and learning,” a- she declared.
In addition to laws to train teachers, bus drivers, and security and catering personnel, states are also providing funding to help schools meet recommended student-to-mental health professional ratios, including counsellors, psychologists and social workers.
In some states, new laws provide funding for mental health screening and data collection tools that schools can use to develop long-term mental health strategies and measure their progress. Other laws require school boards to develop evidence-based plans to protect the mental health of K-12 students.
“This is not new territory,” Lever said, “but it is important territory for schools to plan for so that they can promote the mental well-being of all students and staff, and at the same time, identify and care for people in crisis.”
Key to the schools’ success will be building sustainability so programs can continue after funding ends, she added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already growing crisis in adolescent mental health. Last year, a group of paediatricians, child psychiatrists and children’s hospitals declared a state of emergency for children’s mental health.
In 2019, a national survey conducted by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that the percentage of young people aged 12 to 17 who reported having experienced a major depressive episode in the past year had almost doubled over the past decade, from 9% or 2.2 million children in 2004 to 16% or 3.8 million children in 2019.
In 2021, more than a quarter of American parents said their teen had seen a mental health specialist, including 59% in the past year, according to a survey released last month by CS Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2020, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by girls ages 12 to 17 jumped 51% from 2019, according to CDC data.
This month, the federal health agency reported that in the first half of 2021, more than 4 in 10 high school students surveyed said they had had “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” over the year. previous one, which was that of isolation and school closures for most teenagers.
“These data echo a cry for help,” CDC Acting Senior Deputy Director Dr. Debra Houry said in a press release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding young people with the right support can reverse these trends and help our young people now and in the future.
But mental health experts say schools, which are often the only place troubled young people can turn to for help, are not prepared for the growing crisis in teen mental health.
Historically, most states have not met minimum national standards for the number of students served by mental health professionals, including school psychologists, counselors, and social workers.
Only Idaho and the District of Columbia meet the recommended ratio of one school psychologist per 500 students. At the bottom of the list, Georgia schools employ just one psychologist for every 6,390 students, according to the US Schools Mental Health Report, released in February by a coalition of mental health organizations.
No state meets the nationally recommended ratio of one social worker per 250 students. Further behind, West Virginia employs one social worker for every 15,433 students. And only New Hampshire and Vermont meet the standard of one counselor per 250 students.
The number of K-12 schools enrolling in one of the most commonly used mental health training programs, called Mental Health First Aid, has jumped 17.5% since the end of the last year, according to the National Council for Mental Wellness, which administers the course. .
“Every state in this country has adopted mental health first aid for young people in some school in some way,” said the council’s EL-Amin. “The surge in legislative activity this year is helping to spread the word.”
Developed and tested in Australia, the approximately 32-hour training program was adopted in the United States in 2008 by the council in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
With 25,000 instructors, the evidence-based curriculum has been used to train 2.7 million Americans in a variety of professions. Offered online and in person, the course teaches people to recognize the signs of a mental health or addiction problem, respond to a person in crisis rather than turning away and urging the person to speak to a professional. of mental health.
In the United States, about 1 million people have taken a specialized version of the course designed for teachers, parents and others who interact with adolescents. More than half work in K-12 schools.
The course has also been adapted so that teenagers can help each other, and more than 125,000 students from 700 schools and youth groups have taken it since 2020.
Course graduates say they are able to use what they have learned to help someone within an average of three months, EL-Amin said.
Emma Bap, who took the first aid course last year at Bellows Free Academy high school in St. Albans, Vermont, told the board that the program gave her “more confidence to reach out to someone who appears to be struggling – and most likely saving a life.”
Mental health training courses usually offer scripts of what to say and what not to say to teens who are considering ending their lives. The training also emphasizes that teens should report any potential suicide concerns they may have about a friend or classmate to a teacher or other adult.
Separate training programs for adults and young people explain how to intervene in the event of a potential suicide, emphasizing that suicide is preventable.
But training alone is not enough to prevent suicides and ensure children with mental illness get the care they need, said suicide prevention expert Julie Goldstein Grumet.
“Schools need to create a safe and open culture where children know it’s okay to talk about suicide and mental illness,” said Grumet, vice president of Boston’s Education Development Center, a policy research group .
They also need to develop and maintain strong community mental health partners they can rely on to support their at-risk students, she added.
“Training is great and important, but it needs to be integrated into a holistic approach where it’s not ‘one and done’,” Grumet said. “Schools shouldn’t be saying ‘we did the training’, but rather ‘we transformed the whole culture around suicide prevention and mental health’.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.