Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, children and teens continue to face what federal agencies identified as a “national youth mental health crisis.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services addressed the situation in a letter signed by six HHS agencies, encouraging states to take action and re-allocate federal funding in an effort to prioritize children’s mental health.
No additional financial support will be provided on a federal level, though the memo proposes ways states can expand on their mental health services, highlighting the importance of methodically approving grants, Medicaid state plans, waives and other resources towards programs supporting children in need.
While the sentiment is better late than never, teens and children have been struggling with mental health long before the pandemic hit: According to HHS studies, anxiety in children from the ages of 3 to 17 increased by 29 percent from 2016 to 2020, while depression similarly grew by 27 percent. This of course was only exacerbated by social isolation, lockdowns, and at-home schooling, as 71 percent of parents reported that the pandemic had negatively impacted their child’s mental health. A national survey also found that at least a third of teens felt more unhappy and/or depressed since the start of the pandemic.
The HHS hopes states tackle these problems with children’s mental health task forces that identify specific areas of concern on which states could expand, such as the great disparity between the number of children in need support and available mental health practitioners.
“There’s a significant gap between the number of providers we have to provide services to kids and the need, the demand, we’re seeing for those services,” Ariste Sallas-Brookwell, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health integration at Washington D.C.’s Mary’s Center, told NBC News, adding that the pandemic did contribute to children’s pre-existing problems.
“We’ve seen increases of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm,” Sallas-Brookwell continued. “We know parents and caregivers were a lot more stressed because they didn’t have the same child care or family support. They were financially strained. All of those things impact children.”