Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 7-13) is a good opportunity to reflect on the increasing mental health challenges faced by children and youth. These trends have a ripple effect on families, as children’s mental health issues impact their parents’ health, work, and general wellbeing. Mental health issues are pervasive in our country. More than 50% of all Americans are diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
The COVID-19 pandemic was socially isolating and created stress and anxiety across all ages and demographic groups, particularly children and youth who are still developing and in need of more socialization than adults. A rise in school shootings nationwide has also taken a toll on our children’s mental health. A 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that kids who were initially more concerned about school shootings were more likely to meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder six months later—suggesting that kids internalize these fears, which can then manifest as diagnosable mental health issues.
Children who are LGBTQIA+ may also suffer poor mental health outcomes, according to the 2022 Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health. About 45% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. This is compounded by serious barriers to services, as 60% of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental healthcare in the past year could not get it.
Numbers Don’t Lie
A 2021 CDC survey of over 7,000 high school students showed that:
- Close to 40% of students reported poor mental health.
- Nearly 1 in 4 LGBTQIA+ students experienced sexual violence, nearly 1 in 4 were bullied at school, and more than 1 in 10 did not go to school because of safety concerns..
- More than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and nearly half of students felt persistently sad or hopeless.
Racial and ethnic disparities caused by systemic racism also disproportionately affect children’s mental health. A National Institute of Mental Health study found that high rates of isolation and socioeconomic disadvantage of minority children “can have significant adverse effects on children’s mental health, including depression and behavior problems, anxiety disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and a range of other adjustment difficulties.”
- There are significant disparities between Black and White youth and Latinx and White youth in mental health care use in 2010-2011 and 2016-2017, with significant worsening of Black–White disparities over time. (AACAP, 2022)
- White youth are more likely to receive mental health services compared to youth of color (OASH, 2023).
- Asian youth with major depression were least likely to receive specialty mental health care, with 78% reporting they did not receive mental health services in the past year. This was followed by 68% of multiracial youth and 68% of Black or African American youth with depression who did not receive care (Mental Health America, 2023).
Understanding the Effect of Trauma on Mental Health
According to an article in the Journal of American Medicine, more than two-thirds of children will report a traumatic event by the age of 16. Children who experience posttraumatic stress may be more likely to suffer serious consequences like poor mental and physical health.
Given the widespread experience of poor mental health and trauma in childhood, every organization that works with children will work with children who have experienced trauma. “A trauma-informed child and family service system is one in which all parties involved recognize and respond to the impact of traumatic stress on those who have contact with the system including children, caregivers, and service providers,” said the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Being trauma-informed means following these five guiding principles to help organizations become trauma-responsive and informed, according to the Childhood Trauma Task Force:
- Ensure that children are safe—emotionally, physically, and socially—and also that the staff caring for children are supported.
- Build transparency and trust between children and caregivers.
- Help empower children by allowing them to make choices about their own lives.
- Address discrimination, promote equity, and practice cultural affirmation, recognizing that systemic inequities can cause and reinforce trauma.
- Teach and model healthy relationships, which helps children develop positive interactions with family members and peers.
The Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma, located within ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School in partnership with the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, is the only one of its kind nationally to provide child-serving organizations with a roadmap to becoming more trauma-informed and responsive. This includes the completion of trauma assessment and responsiveness interventions with more than 200 school professionals, impacting over 182,000 school children. This supports schools and districts in better addressing trauma to support the learning and growth of their students.
The Center also offers tool kits, resources, and training for organizations through its website.
Help is Available
For children, youth, and families suffering from poor mental health outcomes, several options for support and resources are available:
- The National Institute of Mental Health provides information and resources on its website.
- The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) has a helpline available at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), text “HelpLine” to 62640, or email at email@example.com. Visit nami.org for a full list of their resources.
Taking care of our children—both physically and mentally—is everyone’s responsibility. Let’s remember it this week, and throughout the year.