Voices’ Blog

A “New Normal” for Children’s Mental Health

Posted:  -  By: Emily Griffey

We are encouraged by the recent focus on and conversation about athletes’ mental health and normalizing the experiences of anxiety, depression and social-emotional well-being that all individuals face. This is a positive step towards a “new normal” for children’s mental health where we recognize children’s social and emotional well-being is as important as their physical well-being. The hard work comes as we take the next step towards embedding mental health into all child and family services and systems.

At Voices, we recognize that mental health shouldn’t be a separate system or policy priority for children—it should be a part of every service and system. That’s why we have integrated our mental health focus across the policy team. We recognize that mental health support is at the heart of addressing childhood trauma, and that mental health services should always target equitable implementation, particularly suited to meet the needs of children of color and children facing economic disadvantage. 

We also must recognize that mental health concerns are not new or a result of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, one out of every three high school students in Virgnia reported feeling sad or hopeless more than two days in a row and the rate of students feeling hopeless had increased seven percentage points between 2011 and 2019. We also must recognize workforce shortages prior to the pandemic—with only 13 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000 children and only 5 localities had a mostly sufficient supply. Building a new normal where every child deserves the support of trained mental health professionals requires us to expand a system that was already underfunded and understaffed.

The “new normal” for children’s mental health should include:

  • Recognition of the collective trauma of the pandemic that was experienced most acutely in terms of grief and loss by Black and Latino children.
  • Increased awareness and identification of children’s mental health needs by pediatricians and family practitioners through VMAP, early childhood mental health consultation and raising awareness. 
  • More staff trained to address clinical needs in child care, schools and community-based organizations. 
  • A fully funded continuum of children’s mental health needs from screening and outpatient services to adequately staffed and accessible hospitals and inpatient settings.

On Wednesday, Governor Northam announced the following investments in mental health using state and federal funds:

  • Nearly $200 million to address staffing shortages at mental health hospitals including $45 million for immediate bonus pay and incentives.
  • $150 million in community-based mental health services including the implementation of the MARCUS Alert central dispatch.
  • $103 million to address opioid and substance abuse. 

We are pleased to see a significant level of investment but the new normal will require significantly scaling up services in communities, schools and child care. The Governor noted that even this level of investment is a “down payment” towards fully funding mental health services. In the past, our approach to the mental health system in Virginia has focused on funding “steps” along the way. In the future, children will need more than “steps”. We will need investments that are more than a down payment and can fund the whole house.

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