Keita Franklin and Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber
If the “second wave” of COVID-19 spreading across the nation is not cause enough for fear, grief and uncertainty in the hearts and minds of Americans, there is a hidden — equally devastating and potentially just as deadly — third wave that desperately needs to be addressed. It is the mental health crisis ravaging communities, especially young children and adolescents.
Let us start with the alarming data. A recent American Psychology Association study found seven out of every 10 Gen Zers, those 8-to 23 years of age, were most likely to report experiencing common symptoms of depression. Similarly, the CDC released statistics in November showing a 24% increase in children, ages 5-11, and 31% increase of adolescents, 12-17 years old, requiring mental health-related hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic. And perhaps most alarming of all, the Annual State of Health in America has recently reported pre-teens and teens had the highest rate of suicide ideations as compared to other age groups. These are warning signs we cannot afford to ignore; never before has the psychological well-being of youth been more critically urgent.
Immediately implement mental health curriculum for all school systems
A key component of our national response must be the immediate implementation of a mandatory mental health curriculum for all school systems across the country. The structure of the curriculum would build on developing coping and problem solving skills and self-care practice. Providing access and teaching students about available tools and resources, including the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale screening tool — a set of easy questions that anyone can use to identify those at risk for suicidal behavior — Is essential. Other resources like the free engaging videos available at Psych Hub aimed at improving mental health literacy, would teach youth early on about the signs of mental health distress and reduce the stigma surrounding getting care. The results would help inform the care needed to ensure those at high risk get the right level of care.
There is evidence that having a mental health curriculum works. In Canada, a study found those who completed such a curriculum not only improved their knowledge on mental health issues, but their completion “predicted a corresponding improvement in attitudes toward mental illness and a reduction in stigma.” A second study in Texas found that a curriculum emphasizing empathy and acceptance reduced bullying and violence towards students diagnosed with mental illnesses.
The problem is that while some schools offer a health class with one lesson tied to mental health, only 20 states have formally implemented mental health into their existing curriculums. So, while schools are often the place students go to for help and to separate themselves for a few hours from the problems at home, the realities of COVID marked by remote and hybrid learning has complicated access to this important safe space.
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Exacerbating matters is that even before the pandemic schools rarely had trained professionals on staff to provide mental health services. Only about 40% of all schools in the U.S. have a full-time nurse and 25% do not have nurse at all. Only about half of schools have onsite mental health care or arrangements with outside organizations to provide such care. So, it should come as no surprise that only 16% of all children receive mental health assistance in school environments where they spend the majority of their waking hours.
Funding mental health curriculum is a great investment
Put simply, the U.S. must adopt a mandatory national mental health curriculum for our schools systems that is properly staffed, equipped, and funded. In fact, any such curriculum will be doomed to failure if it is not supported by funding and policies to eliminate the Grand Canyon-like gaps that currently exist.
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To justify the cost of implementation, we need only point to the plethora of studies that have shown the lingering consequences and costs of child mental health disorders that go unchecked into adulthood. One such study has indicated that mental health illnesses costs employers over $44 billion per year in lost productivity. In other words, funding a school mental health curriculum will pay enormous dividends well into the future, dwarfing the initial investment required. But, if we don’t act now, young children will be victims to lasting effects no vaccine will immunize.
Keita Franklin (@keitafranklin4), the chief clinical officer for Loyal Source and former director of suicide prevention for the Department of Defense and VA, is the co-director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project.
Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber (@PosnerKelly), clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, is director and founder of the Columbia Lighthouse Project. In 2018, she was awarded the U.S. Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service.