It’s a question parents, teachers, and researchers alike are asking. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed many teens and young adults of precious learning and socializing time. Add to that the challenge of not having enough mental health providers to meet the demand for counseling, and you’ve got a serious problem.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the pandemic led to a decline in kids’ overall mental health. But that impact varies, depending on factors including age, family circumstances, and preexisting conditions.
Results from a 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that nearly half of kids ages 12 to 17 who had a major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year said the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health either “quite a bit or a lot.” That’s concerning because only 12.4 percent of their peers without an MDE reported similar levels of impact.
Not a New Problem
Although the pandemic may have put a spotlight on teen mental health, rates of depression and anxiety in children have risen steadily in the last ten years. Many experts think this trend is unlikely to improve without rethinking how we approach teen mental health care. As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends regular anxiety screenings for children ages 8 to 18 and regular depression screenings for adolescents ages 12 to 18.
The Power of School Connection
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the most important factors in boosting students’ emotional resilience is “school connectedness.” This is the feeling of being supported and belonging at school. Students who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely to report feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Experts believe that students can benefit from multiple support systems in school. But given the shortage of available counselors, only about half of U.S. public schools offer mental health assessments, and even fewer offer treatment services.
In Philadelphia’s public schools, the STEP Program provides mental and behavioral health and social services to students and families. The school district works with the Mayor’s Office of Education, Community Behavioral Health, Drexel Community Partners, and the Department of Human Services to provide this support.
At the state level, Pennsylvania recently made $190 million available for school mental health and safety programs for the 2022‒23 school year. Districts that applied by August could receive a base grant of $100,000 for safety and security improvements, with another $100,000 for mental health programs and training. Additional funding may be available based on population.
“What we need is to build capacity through all of the systems that are part of children’s lives — in families, in schools, in the education of everybody who interacts with children,” says psychologist Ann Masten, Ph.D., a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota.
Focusing on Student Mental Health at Girard College
Youth from underserved communities are less likely to receive mental health care services. To address this disparity, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation is funding a multi-year pilot initiative to provide access to mental health care for every student at Girard College. Girard College is an independent, five-day boarding school in Philadelphia. It serves approximately 300 students in first through twelfth grades from families with limited financial resources. More than 80 percent of the student population identifies as African-American.
This innovative care model integrates school support with telehealth services provided by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The pandemic amplified the urgent need for access to mental health care as young people were faced with additional difficulties such as school closures, family stress, social isolation, and economic challenges,” said Foundation Executive Director Heather Major. “A key goal of this collaboration is to create a replicable model for bringing mental health services into schools in a sustainable way.”
The pandemic showed us students of all ages need greater access to mental health care. “The focus needs to shift up toward preventive care and secondary and early intervention,” says Archana Basu, research scientist and clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Independence Blue Cross will continue to support efforts to improve access to mental health care for youth in the community.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing anxiety or depression, please seek help. If you don’t know where to begin, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.