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September 20, 2021

‘The kids are not all right’: What can federal lawmakers do for students’ mental health?

Credit: The Sacramento Bee, Gillian Brassil

Back-to-school this year comes amid a pandemic, wildfires and questions about how being in-person will work on top of other stressors normally faced by students.

As school-children make their way to the classroom for the first time in over a year, California’s congressional delegation is pitching resources to aid with their mental health. Though this legislation would likely not be enacted this academic year, if at all, many resources could be implemented in 2022.

Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, J. Luis Correa, D-Santa Ana, and Katie Porter, D-Irvine, are among several members of the California delegation to introduce general mental health legislation this year.

“Providing additional support and mental health services through schools was an important need prior to the pandemic, only amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sen. Alex Padilla told reporters last week.

Padilla announced a bill this month that would provide $20 million over the course of four years to help students address mental and behavioral health needs by the Secretary of Education through a pilot program.

Already, $3 billion of the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion response to the coronavirus that President Joe Biden signed into law this spring — went to mental health and substance abuse resources, the largest single disbursement to-date for the federal agency that provides money to help with those issues.

A NATIONWIDE STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

Children’s mental health visits to hospitals and eating disorders increased nationwide during the pandemic, said Michelle Cabrera, the executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. Mental health-related visits to emergency rooms for were up 24% for children ages 5–11 and up 31% for children ages 12–17 from 2019 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In California, almost every service through Medicaid, the public health insurance option mainly designated for low-income individuals, decreased over the course of the pandemic. Mental health services is the only one that increased, Cabrera said.

And California suicide rates among youth aged 10-18 increased about 20% between 2019 and 2020, according to preliminary data compiled by the California Department of Public Health: 184 children ages 10-19 died by suicide in 2019.

“All of those indicators tell us what I think we know, and certainly those of us who are parents living through the pandemic know, which is that the kids are not all right, they’re not okay,” Cabrera said in a phone interview with The Bee.

Clinicians are bracing for a year where calls for help could increase further, with compounding anxiety from returning to school and historical trends of increased rates of suicide while kids are in school.

“You would think, ‘Okay, we’ll send the kids back to school and that’ll fix things.’ Actually, in the experience of our clinicians historically, when kids are in school, those rates of crisis and suicide spike,” Cabrera said. “So again, not sure exactly how to explain this dynamic, right? Where they need their social experience, need their emotional support, need their community, but also being in school adds a different layer of stress and anxiety for them.”

Generally, Americans have gotten more comfortable talking about and seeking aid for mental health issues. Students are hungry for help.

At Pioneer High School in San Jose in the 2018-19 school year, students asked for mental health resources. The school set up a Wellness Center where they could learn about addressing mental health challenges and resources.

“We were open for about seven months, and then the pandemic hit, which has just made this resource and support all the more important,” said Amy Hernandez, a Wellness Coordinator for Pioneer High School in San Jose’s Unified School District, after the announcement of Padilla’s bill. “The Wellness Center is a place that students who come can practice healthy coping strategies, they practice self awareness, putting words to what they’re feeling.”

They’ve continued providing resources during the pandemic. On Friday, Hernandez said the Center had been open for 15 days this school year: 247 students have checked in so far.

“Which is encouraging,” Hernandez said.

MENTAL HEALTH FUNDING FOR SCHOOLS

Funding established through Padilla’s bill, the “Comprehensive Mental Health in Schools Pilot Program Act of 2021,” could be used for professional development, making “racially, culturally, and linguistically appropriate” trauma-informed practices and hiring more school-based mental and behavioral health professionals.

The senator, who has three young sons, said that his experience showed him first-hand some stresses the pandemic had on school-aged children who have been out of the classroom for a year.

“This will be especially critical over the next few years as students have worked through the longer term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Padilla said.

The bill, which has a counterpart introduced by Rep. David Trone, D-Maryland, in the U.S. House of Representatives, particularly focuses on communities of color and low-income communities, where mental health resources are particularly scant — and, oftentimes, more needed.