Opinion | Investing in children’s mental health must be a statewide priority

Now, nearly every time I am in clinic, I see pediatric patients who are so overcome with depression and/or anxiety that they are unable to find joy in things that used to bring them happiness. Just last week, I saw a teenage patient who was so incredibly anxious that she has been unable to attend school with any consistency since the return to in-person learning, despite a strong desire to be back in the classroom.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s most recent budget proposal for the upcoming academic year includes a strong investment in school-based mental health services which would help to fund teacher training, mental health screenings, and more on-campus mental health professionals. By making this critical, long-overdue step in prioritizing the mental health of our kids, and by meeting them where they are – in school – we can hopefully meet some of their needs, and help them succeed in class, on the field, and at home.

Here are a few ways it does that.

First, building on last year’s budget that led to the hiring of more mental health professionals in schools, this budget includes more resources to help districts hire hundreds more on-campus nurses, psychologists, and social workers and offers every school free access to quality mental health screeners so that administration, staff, and teachers have an accurate understanding of the state of mental health on their campus to better coordinate efforts and resources.

Second, the plan proposes a needed expansion of child and adolescent school-based health centers. These are health clinics housed in school buildings staffed by clinicians in communities where families lack access to medical services. Today, there are over 100 sites across Michigan, serving 200,000 students annually. This budget would allow for the addition of 40 more sites which will go to chronically underserved or understaffed regions of our state with limited access to care. The impact of affordable, high-quality mental and physical healthcare for our kids who need it most is obvious – it will help them stay safe and engaged in the classroom so that they can thrive outside of it.

Third, the budget proposes a partnership with TRAILS, an organization offering teachers training to supplement school-based mental health programming. While half of young Michiganders are impacted by mental illness, only 1 in 5 receive treatment. TRAILS uses a 3-tiered approach of universal awareness, early intervention, and suicide risk management to ensure every teacher has the tools and knowledge necessary to address immediate concerns or help their students seek out the professional help they need.

Today, one in six US children and adolescents are diagnosed with a mental health condition annually, and suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-18 in the US The mental health crisis facing our nation’s children is so dire that in October 2021 the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Despite these shocking statistics, I too often hear from parents of my patients that they cannot find mental health support and have been sitting on waitlists for therapy for months, with no end in sight. These interactions consistently remind me that recognizing the crisis is not enough – we need action.

Raising a child takes a village, and that includes parents, teachers, healthcare professionals, and our elected leaders. Gov. Whitmer’s budget proposal would be a step in the right direction for fighting the mental health crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. I urge the Michigan Legislature and the governor to work side-by-side to get this done.

For our children, I have to believe that they will.

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