“Studies and news stories paint a consistently alarming picture of the mental health status of our children in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are experiencing increased stress and anxiety…These conditions have both immediate (behavioral problems, deterioration in academic performance) and potential long-term consequences (prolonged exposure to chronic stress is detrimental to physical and mental health throughout life).”
I wrote those words in a Morning Call guest column in September 2021, in which I called on policy makers to recognize the looming mental health crisis our children face as a result of COVID.
In November, The Morning Call published research from the nonprofit Lehigh Valley Justice Institute showing that emerging from the pandemic, students in area school districts are reporting an increase in symptoms of depression, thoughts suicides and self-harm at or above the estimated rate for schools across Pennsylvania. Research has also shown that children with these conditions are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors and see their school performance decline.
The data reinforces the findings of a study released in October by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in which 3 out of 4 young people said they had experienced at least one potentially traumatic event (known as a “negative experience of childhood”) during the pandemic. The CDC report noted that young people reporting ACEs were twice as likely to rate their own mental health as “poor” and up to six times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and behaviors over the year. elapsed, compared to those who did not report CEA. .
The research is clear: the COVID-19 pandemic was a public health emergency that threatened not only our physical health, but also the mental health of our children. And as we warned last year, it’s a threat we need to take seriously now so that our children don’t suffer the long-term consequences.
But there is good news amid the crisis:
- As the Justice Institute report notes, Liberty High School in Bethlehem addresses the issues its students face in a holistic way that emphasizes the role that trauma plays in mental health issues. At KidsPeace, “trauma-informed care” has been the norm for many years, and we applaud Liberty’s commitment to enabling students to access the help they need in the school environment.
- Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Legislature this year included a $100 million budget allocation specifically for school mental health support for Commonwealth schools, as well as increases to school safety and funding for adult mental health care.
These are positive developments, but they are only the beginning. We need to work to make sure students in Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley — in Easton, Bangor, Salisbury, Northern Lehigh, Allentown — can access the kind of help available to those at Liberty High School. And as a state, we must deal with the continuing decline in the availability of clinical mental health services, such as those KidsPeace provides through its continuum of care – a shortage of access due to labor shortages- and outdated financial support policies.
An important milestone would be for the incoming administration of Governor-elect Josh Shapiro to revive Governor Tom Wolf’s “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” program! initiative, to bring together the stakeholders of this problem – providers, civil servants, school administrators, parents and experts – in order to find creative solutions to the staffing, access and financing problems facing the mental health care sector in Pennsylvania. This initiative met an important need before being interrupted due to the pandemic; this need has only grown since then.
As an organization that provides treatment to thousands of children in Pennsylvania each year, KidsPeace is committed to full participation in a revitalized effort to make the Commonwealth mental health care system a positive model for our country – from the same way the Liberty Wellness Center is a positive model. for schools in our community.
A year ago, we sounded the alarm about the coming crisis and urged our leaders to act. This year, we see that the crisis is there and that it is even more urgent to act. Next year, when our children who need help ask, “What did you do when the crisis hit? “, what will be our response?
Michael W. Slack is President and CEO of KidsPeace in the Township of North Whitehall.
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