National mental health emergency for children and adolescents

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The pandemic has put such tremendous pressure on students and schools that national health associations have declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 

“This worsening crisis… is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020,” a declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association says. 

“Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24. The pandemic has intensified this crisis: across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.” 

This crisis is a rallying call for the country and for City Connects. 

Research — from the fields of economics, education, neuroscience, and psychology – shows that growing up poor — or during a pandemic – negatively affects child development and school readiness. Children living in poverty have less access to resources, and they may be exposed to more chaotic situations that can result in “toxic stress,” prolonged periods of stress that can harm children’s brain development. 

“This could affect a whole generation for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University tells KHN (Kaiser Health News), about the deprivations of the pandemic, including economic and educational losses. “All kids will be affected. Some will get through this and be fine. They will learn from it and grow. But lots of kids are going to be in big trouble.”

“The pandemic brought home how crucial it is for all students to have meaningful connections to peers and caring adults, to school and community, and to resources they need to grow,” explains Dr. Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects. 

“Our coordinators are providing a range of resources and relationships that are part of the continuum of supporting students’ mental health. When a family has someone to turn to for help, has food in the refrigerator and a roof over their heads, this reduces family stress and that helps children. When a student connects with peers in an afterschool program, or feels good about himself because he has clean clothes and shoes that fit, that contributes to wellbeing. And, of course, when a student is in crisis, our coordinators are at the heart of coordinating and connecting that student and family to the right providers.”

To do this, coordinators are facilitating access to mental health services as well as supportive relationships in school, engaging activities, and tailored resources. They are helping students and their families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic. They are paying attention to the needs of students of color. They are supporting parents who have lost jobs during the pandemic. And they are helping all students cope with the stress and uncertainty of living through a global pandemic. 

These experiences affirm that supporting student mental health includes prevention as well as intervention. 

As the country moves through the pandemic, action is essential, which is why we support the recommendations made in the national emergency declaration, which include: 

• increasing federal funding for infant and adolescent access to “evidence-based mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment to appropriately address” mental health needs, especially for “under-resourced populations” 

• strengthening “emerging efforts to reduce the risk of suicide in children and adolescents through prevention programs in schools, primary care, and community settings,” and 

• fully funding “comprehensive, community-based systems of care that connect families in need of behavioral health services and supports for their child with evidence-based interventions in their home, community or school” 

As we’ve seen at City Connects, it’s vital to provide a continuum of services to support students’ mental health so they can emerge from the pandemic with resilience and a focus on the future.

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