All children should have the tools and resources they need to thrive. But the years of the pandemic have taken a heavy toll on our youth. Children felt fear, isolation and disruption as playgrounds closed, schools went virtual and parents’ jobs disappeared. At first, an alarming number of parents reported that their children were stressed, anxious, upset or in trouble. With good reason. By July 2022, more than 200,000 children had lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. More than 1,600 of our children’s peers have died.
Here in Washington, 15.1% of children are struggling with anxiety or depression compared to 11.8% nationally, according to the new KIDS COUNT data book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The number of children and adolescents in Washington with both of these conditions increased by 33.6% from 2016 to 2020, a rate greater than the national increase.
The picture is no different at the local level. A staggering 41% of students in Walla Walla schools report struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. These struggles are affecting their ability to learn as well as their physical health.
Children faced many problems before the pandemic. Now, more than two years later, a mental health pandemic is making the usual barriers of poverty and racism even more formidable. Racial and ethnic disparities contribute to troubling mental health and well-being conditions among children of color, as their families have historically had more limited access to services. Nationally, 9% of high school students overall, but 12% of black students, 13% of students of two or more races, and 26% of American Indian or Alaska Native high school students attempted suicide. in the year before the most recent federal survey.
Further, many LGBTQ youth are facing significant challenges as they seek mental health support. Among heterosexual high school students of all races and ethnicities, 6% attempted suicide; Worryingly, the rate for gay, lesbian or bisexual students was nearly four times higher (23%).
We must ensure that each of our children not only survives, but thrives in these crucial years, so that they reach adulthood knowing and loving who they are.
School-based health clinics, such as the Health Center here in Walla Walla, allow students to build confidence in a confidential manner where they can see a counselor during the school day. Feeling better is an indisputable prerequisite to doing better – which is why the Health Center clinics offer free, confidential services at Pioneer Middle School, Walla Walla High School and Lincoln High School. Having mental health professionals on staff and in the field, right where kids already spend a large part of their day, means students know there’s a capable, caring adult in the building—which is proven to promote their learning.
State investments in behavioral health care for children and families have increased over the past two years, thanks to state lawmakers making smart budget decisions. But we must strengthen these efforts to provide equal opportunities for young people.
Many factors can improve or decrease a child’s mental health. Access to basic needs—food, stable housing, and safe neighborhoods—are all essential to children’s stability and growth. And mental health support needs to take into account the diverse experiences and identities of young people. Walla Walla’s diverse families need health professionals who deeply understand them—and are committed to building lasting connections. To help, policymakers must prioritize solutions that leave no child behind.
Earlier this year, the state Department of Health received about 30 applications for funding to expand services at school-based health centers — but only has enough money for about nine projects. If we are seriously committed to equity, we need state funding for each of the school-based clinics that applied for that funding.
Until we get there, in communities around the state, some of our most vulnerable students will continue to miss out — and that hurts learning, hurts families, and hurts our community’s future.
Norma Hernandez is the executive director of The Health Center (www.thehealthcenterww.org/), serving the physical, emotional and social needs of students in Walla Walla schools. Dr. Stephan Blandford is executive director of the Children’s Alliance (www.childrensalliance.org), a nationwide voice for children, youth and families.