Coming Together for our Youth During Mental Health Awareness Month

Chris Ladish, PhD | Chief Clinical Officer, Pediatric Behavioral Health
Mary Bridge Children’s | MultiCare Behavioral Health

The continuation of a global pandemic, effect of prolonged virtual learning, and the ongoing impact of longstanding social, environmental, and economic disparities continue to cause increased rates of depression, anxiety, and risk for suicide in youth.  Nationally approximately 1.3 million fewer children were enrolled in school during the 2020/2021 academic year than were enrolled in 2018/2019, with approximately 42,000 of those children residing in Washington State. These lost opportunities for academic and social learning are experiences which children cannot simply make up; the impacts will be experienced for years to come.  It is anticipated that longstanding impacts will more broadly include learning, socialization, and mental health.

The mental health statistic for those struggling with impact related to mental health challenges is now approaching 1 in 4. As many as 1/3rd of children report experiencing some symptoms of depression or anxiety.  Greater than 200,000 have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to Covid with large cohorts experiencing grief and loss. Sadly, in their desire to numb their pain, more children are turning to substances with as many as 45% of those who say they are engaging in substance use indicating they are doing so in isolation.  In short, our nation’s youth are experiencing collective hurt, and this hurt is being represented in all facets of their lives.

In the last quarter of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospitals Association (CHA) to jointly declare youth mental health a national emergency.  As noted in Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s Advisory Dedicated to Protecting Youth Mental Health, “the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”  Never have our youth faced the level of stress, isolation, and environmental disruption that they face today. Never have we been more called to support them.

As we pull together this May, during Mental Health Awareness month, we are called to remember this most important fact:  every child within our community is precious and no single provider nor agency alone can solve the mental health needs of our youth.  Rather, the mental health crisis facing our youth must be viewed as a problem impacting all, and all must share a sense of collective responsibility and accountability to the children of our state and nation if we are to successfully combat this crisis. 

Washington is fortunate that the recent legislative cycle focused on bringing resource to these issues.  Most initiatives put forth by the state’s Children and Youth Behavioral Health Workgroup have been supported.  And now our work must continue.

Looking forward providers should look to partner for embedding behavioral health within their primary care practices to assure that youth have access where and when they need it.  We must continue to advocate for parity in telehealth reimbursement which is critical to assure that families who cannot access services easily or cannot afford time away from work, have increased ease of access to care.  Priority access must be considered for those who are overrepresented by health inequities including the underinsured, youth of color, LGBTQ youth, and those suffering from homelessness. We must continue to provide ongoing depression and mental health screening to identify children at risk as early as possible.   Finally, we must equip children who are old enough to have a cell phone with crisis numbers within that phone and support and coach children to access crisis help when needed.  We must advocate for both emotional and physical fitness in the lives of our youth. We must wrap around our children.

Editor’s note: Addressing the behavioral health crisis is at the forefront of WCAAP’s priorities. Please see this link to read about wins in the legislature this session that may help pediatric clinics, children, and families, and see this link to read about how WCAAP members are speaking up to media about this complex issue.