Two years ago, pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and children’s hospitals joined together to declare a national emergency in youth mental health. While our country navigated the COVID-19 crisis, we saw a parallel health emergency growing among our nation’s youth – one that predated the pandemic.
Fast forward to where we are today, and while we’ve seen some policy progress, there is still so much we can and must do to support the healthy mental and emotional development of young people.
Survey data released this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, in 2021, nearly 60% of teen girls had recently experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness, and nearly one-third of high school girls had recently considered suicide. About 3 in 10 high school students had experienced poor mental health in the past 30 days, while 22% had seriously contemplated suicide within the past year, and 1 in 10 had attempted it.
Findings like these reflect the concerning trends we’ve witnessed in our clinics, practices, and hospitals across the country. But while the numbers are undoubtedly alarming, we cannot deem them insurmountable or irreversible. Instead, they must galvanize us to act.
Our organizations – including the pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, nurses, mental health care providers, and children’s hospitals we represent – share a mission: to ensure young people can receive the best care possible to live their healthiest lives. We are committed to working with patients and families to identify effective interventions and preventive measures to address health challenges.
It is time our government leaders used the same solution-oriented approach to support the mental health of young people. We know the types of policies that will work, but we need urgent steps and a significant investment in the continuum of care to see actionable progress.
- Early Intervention and Prevention
First, if we are to best support all youth mental health, we need to start doing so earlier in their lives. This means investing in prevention and early intervention services that work to help young people before a condition becomes severe or even life-threatening.
Currently, if a young person is struggling at home or at school, they can face major barriers to accessing mental health services. Congress must fund programs that help prevent, slow down, or lessen the impact of mental health issues in children, including those without a mental health diagnosis, and ensure that existing federal investments – such as the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant program – can support the prevention and early intervention services children need most.
- Addressing Workforce Shortages
We also know that the dire shortage of mental and behavioral health practitioners who are trained to meet children’s unique needs is further impacting young people’s ability to access timely care. Families often face long wait times for appointments and may need to travel long distances to seek care. In some cases, children and teens go without treatment, which can lead to a mental health crisis.
We need policymakers at the federal and state levels to invest in innovative ways to train existing and new providers to address the continuum of mental health care while also prioritizing opportunities to grow a more diverse mental health workforce. That includes rectifying inadequate payment rates for behavioral health services, which make it even more difficult for child and adolescent psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to sustain a career in these fields. And it means paying primary care pediatricians – who have been the sole outpatient physician care providers for approximately one-third of U.S. children with mental health conditions – for the mental health care services they provide.
- Integration of Care
We must increase community-based options across the continuum of care and integrate medical and behavioral health care services into primary care. For example, limits on same-day billing in public and private insurance mean a patient may not be seen by both a medical and mental health provider on the same day. This not only hampers care but also places an unnecessary financial burden on the patient and family – and in some cases, leads them to forgo needed care.
- Government Leadership
We know what to do to help support youth mental health. But we need our government leaders to help achieve change that extends beyond our own exam rooms.
We call on policymakers to take meaningful action that will provide young people with the mental and emotional health support they need.
The mental health crisis among our youth is an ongoing emergency. To address it effectively, we need a multi-faceted approach that encompasses early intervention, workforce development, and the integration of mental health care into primary care. Government leadership is essential to drive these changes forward. It’s time to prioritize our young people’s mental well-being and give them the support they need to thrive. The health of our future generations depends on it.