Our community, state and nation are in the midst of a children’s mental health crisis.
As has been widely reported, King County has witnessed no fewer than four youth suicides thus far in April. Meanwhile, results from the mental health portion of Washington’s biannual Healthy Youth Survey were just released, and they confirm that our kids are experiencing emotional distress at levels that are historically high, dangerous and rising. One in four has a mental health problem — like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress — that compromises their ability to thrive.
The rate of young people who have seriously considered suicide has increased 35% in the past decade. Yet according to survey results, when asked if they have had contact with a counselor at school in the last year, over half of eighth-grade students and nearly half of 10th-grade students said they did not.
There is no better way to assure our children’s well-being and future success than to invest in mental-health supports provided in schools. When students show signs of distress, school-based mental-health services are far more accessible and trusted by young people. Schoolwide social-emotional learning programs, when implemented well, improve academic success for all students by 11 percent on average. Comprehensive school mental-health and suicide-prevention programs improve all students’ abilities to cope with stress and reduce the risks of both violence and suicide. Locating services in schools also reduces barriers to treatment, improving access for historically underserved populations.
Given the escalating crisis, and the indisputable role of school mental health in increasing access and improving outcomes, we are watching the 2019 legislative session closely. We are pleased by the attention mental health has received from many passionate and well-intended legislators who have introduced no fewer than 10 bills focused on school mental health. At the same time, we are disheartened by the lack of cohesiveness of the legislation, and an apparent lack of collective political will to act forcefully and provide meaningful resources to the cause of school-based mental health.
Despite the many bills that have been introduced this session, there is still a clear need for trained mental-health personnel working in schools, where our children spend the majority of their time outside of their homes. Instead we have seen, for example, legislation that aims to invest more than $8 million annually to mitigate the risks and impacts of catastrophic events such as natural disasters and mass school shootings. While we will not dispute the importance of readiness to respond to such events, these events are rare. According to the Washington state Department of Health, 87 school-aged children were lost to suicide in 2017, compared with zero lost to shootings and natural disasters that occurred in schools.
In the wake of the Parkland high school shooting, governors across the nation demanded their state mental-health and education sectors work together to provide mental-health supports in every school. Their legislatures responded by supplementing their efforts with state funds to ensure they do so. South Carolina now has school mental-health clinicians in half of their schools and a pledge to have one in every school by 2022. Georgia, Minnesota, Colorado and other states now allocate millions annually to school mental health. Why? Because it is the best way to get help to students in need in the place they are comfortable receiving it.
Every Washington community deserves caring, well-trained mental-health professionals in all their school buildings. Working as part of schoolwide teams using proven strategies, these professionals can identify needs before problems arise, provide evidence-based treatment to those who need it, and help build a positive, nurturing climate for learning.
We urge our child-serving agencies, legislators and governor to work together with experts and advocates to build and resource a comprehensive school mental-health strategy to ensure our children and teens are safe, healthy and resilient. The politics over school funding must not stand in the way of giving our kids what they need now. The consequences of our inaction will harm us for generations to come.