2021 General Assembly Session: Mental Health PrioritiesLeave a Comment
Children’s mental health is facing a critical system change moment right now. There has never been a moment when mental health needs were more prevalent or more normalized. There are few moments when all children and parents experience a collective trauma. There is more awareness and understanding of how racial and historical trauma is connected to mental health and wellness. We must take this opportunity to build a new approach to mental health services and supports for children. The first steps for this new approach start with the investments that the governor, state agencies and legislature will make in the early days of 2021.
Pre-pandemic, one in four children in Virginia experienced a mental health issue ranging from ADD to depression/anxiety. A look at the report from Mental Health America on their online screening tool found a 93 percent increase over the previous year of individuals seeking help through the online screening during the pandemic. There was a 9 percent increase among youth 11-17 taking the screening by September 2020 compared to 2019.
We know from previous research that community disasters or traumas can produce high levels of mental health issues in children with as many as half of children in a community experiencing mental health issues after a disaster. In 2018-19 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly 61 percent of Black or Latino children in VA experienced trauma. In the future, our systems must respond to this disproportionate impact and the context of racial & historical trauma.
Because we know that mental health concerns will increase for children in their prevalence and severity we must plan now to build systems to support mental health and meet kids where they are—in child care settings, virtual classrooms, online peer groups and more acute treatment methods.
To cast a wide net for mental health services and to help children and families recover from the trauma of the pandemic and years of economic hardship and unjust systems, policymakers must ask this question in every legislative meeting and in every discussion with agencies and advocates: “Where are we addressing mental health needs in this system?”
Some ideas about how policymakers can begin:
- Support parents: One in five parents reports feeling stressed or depressed during the pandemic. Parents’ mental health and wellness directly impacts their children. Parents who are stressed financially or by grief, loss and anxiety cannot provide the optimal supportive environment for kids to grow and thrive. We need policies that support parents such as home visiting and paid leave expansion.
- Start early: Begin in early education and elementary schools by training educators to support social-emotional wellness and to identify and address mental health issues appropriately. A team of advocates and state agency leaders put together a report about how to build mental health supports in early education systems. State agencies must work towards implementing those plans and the legislature must support additional mental health services.
- Medicaid is an opportunity: More than 700,000 or one in three children in Virginia is insured by Medicaid/FAMIS. These children are the most economically at-risk in the state and also experience a lack of access to resources in their communities. Knowing that we can reach a large group of our most vulnerable children through Medicaid, what tools for screening, care coordination, and innovative or incentive funds can be leveraged even before kids fully return to classrooms and child care is vital.
- Build the continuum: Because this year has disrupted the way we deliver services and efforts, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act and Behavioral Health Enhancement reforming how services are delivered, another look at the continuum is warranted. We know right now that services and a trained workforce will need to be built at every level and in every geography for a fully articulated continuum.
- Apply an equity lens: This is the most important step and what we must have in place to build our systems of support back. Workforce and training initiatives need to be better prepared to meet the needs of children of color and respond to racial and historical trauma. We need training in implicit bias and the intersection of racial and cultural trauma for all of our child-serving professionals and to recruit a diverse set of professionals more reflective of the kids they serve.
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