National, State-by-State Data Show Depth of Mental Health Pandemic for Youth

Posted August 8, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A father and his teenage son—both wearing hoodies—walk together in an outdoor setting. The father’s arm is around his son’s shoulders and the two are smiling.

Chil­dren in Amer­i­ca are in the midst of a men­tal health cri­sis, strug­gling with anx­i­ety and depres­sion at unprece­dent­ed lev­els, accord­ing to the 2022 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion with 50-state data on child well-being. The annu­al report focus­es this year on youth men­tal health, con­cur­ring with a recent assess­ment by the U.S. sur­geon gen­er­al that cur­rent con­di­tions amount to a youth men­tal health pan­dem­ic. The report sheds light on the health, eco­nom­ic and oth­er chal­lenges affect­ing Amer­i­can children.

The Data Book reports that chil­dren across Amer­i­ca, and in more than 40 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, were more like­ly to encounter anx­i­ety or depres­sion dur­ing the first year of the COVID-19 cri­sis than pre­vi­ous­ly, with the nation­al fig­ure jump­ing 26%, from 9.4% among chil­dren ages 317 (5.8 mil­lion kids) to 11.8% (7.3 mil­lion) between 2016 and 2020, the year COVID-19 swept across the Unit­ed States. This increase rep­re­sents 1.5 mil­lion more chil­dren who are strug­gling to make it through the day.

Down­load the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book

Men­tal health is just as impor­tant as phys­i­cal health in a child’s abil­i­ty to thrive,” says Lisa Hamil­ton, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Casey Foun­da­tion. As our nation con­tin­ues to nav­i­gate the fall­out from the COVID-19 cri­sis, pol­i­cy­mak­ers must do more to ensure all kids have access to the care and sup­port they need to cope and live full lives.”

Chil­dren and youth have suf­fered trau­ma and tremen­dous loss over the past two and a half years. By July 2022, more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple in Amer­i­ca had died from the nov­el coro­n­avirus, includ­ing more than 1,600 chil­dren, and more than 200,000 kids had lost a par­ent or pri­ma­ry care­giv­er. And even as they expe­ri­ence COVID-era men­tal health chal­lenges, many chil­dren have con­tend­ed with con­di­tions that made life hard­er well before 2020.

Racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties con­tribute to dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly trou­bling men­tal health and well­ness con­di­tions among chil­dren of col­or. Nine per­cent of high-school­ers over­all but 12% of Black stu­dents, 13% of stu­dents of two or more races and 26% of Amer­i­can Indi­an or Native Alaskan high-school­ers attempt­ed sui­cide in the year pri­or to the most recent fed­er­al sur­vey. Fur­ther, many LGBTQ young peo­ple are encoun­ter­ing chal­lenges as they seek men­tal health sup­port. Among het­ero­sex­u­al high school stu­dents of all races and eth­nic­i­ties, 6% attempt­ed sui­cide; the share was 23% for gay, les­bian or bisex­u­al students.

Eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty has had an out­sized effect on chil­dren and fam­i­lies expe­ri­enc­ing finan­cial chal­lenges, lead­ing to increased anx­i­ety and stress for many. Chil­dren in pover­ty, whose par­ents lack secure employ­ment and chil­dren in house­holds with high hous­ing cost bur­dens feel the weight of their family’s eco­nom­ic stress. Chil­dren who live in under-resourced com­mu­ni­ties may expe­ri­ence addi­tion­al stress from safe­ty and secu­ri­ty con­cerns. The report finds:

  • 17% of chil­dren of all back­grounds live in pover­ty, but among African Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can Indi­an chil­dren, that pro­por­tion is close to a third, at 32% and 31% respectively.
  • 27% of all chil­dren have par­ents lack­ing secure employ­ment, but that num­ber goes up to 44% and 41% for Amer­i­can Indi­an and African Amer­i­can chil­dren respectively.
  • Lati­no chil­dren also face a high­er bur­den in these two cat­e­gories than their white counterparts.
  • Unin­sured chil­dren are less like­ly to have access to men­tal health ser­vices, pre­vent­ing them from secur­ing the help they need in times of crisis.

In Decem­ber, U.S. Sur­geon Gen­er­al Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advi­so­ry on the urgent need to address the nation’s youth men­tal health cri­sis. Encour­ag­ing­ly, there appears to be broad agree­ment on the need for action. The Casey Foun­da­tion calls for law­mak­ers to heed the sur­geon general’s warn­ing and respond by devel­op­ing pro­grams and poli­cies to ease men­tal health bur­dens on chil­dren and their fam­i­lies. They urge pol­i­cy­mak­ers to:

  • Pri­or­i­tize meet­ing kids’ basic needs. Youth who grow up in pover­ty are two to three times more like­ly to devel­op men­tal health con­di­tions than their peers. Chil­dren need a sol­id foun­da­tion of nutri­tious food, sta­ble hous­ing and safe neigh­bor­hoods — and their fam­i­lies need finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty — to fos­ter pos­i­tive men­tal health and wellness.
  • Ensure every child has access to the men­tal health care they need, when and where they need it. Schools should increase the pres­ence of social work­ers, psy­chol­o­gists and oth­er men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als on staff and strive to meet the 250-to‑1 ratio of stu­dents to coun­selors rec­om­mend­ed by the Amer­i­can School Coun­selor Asso­ci­a­tion, and work with local health care providers and local and state gov­ern­ments to make addi­tion­al fed­er­al resources avail­able and coor­di­nate treatment.
  • Bol­ster men­tal health care that con­sid­ers young people’s expe­ri­ences and iden­ti­ties. It should be trau­ma-informed — designed to pro­mote a child’s heal­ing and emo­tion­al secu­ri­ty — and cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant to the child’s life. It should be informed by the lat­est evi­dence and research and should be geared toward ear­ly inter­ven­tion, which can be espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the absence of a for­mal diag­no­sis of men­tal illness.

Each year, the Data Book presents nation­al and state data from 16 indi­ca­tors in four domains — eco­nom­ic well-being, edu­ca­tion, health, and fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty fac­tors — and ranks the states accord­ing to how chil­dren are far­ing over­all. The data in this year’s report are a mix of pre-pan­dem­ic and more recent fig­ures and are the lat­est avail­able. Mass­a­chu­setts, New Hamp­shire and Min­neso­ta rank first, sec­ond and third in over­all well-being in the 2022 Data Book; Mis­sis­sip­pi, Louisiana and New Mex­i­co ranked 48th, 49th and 50th.

Amer­i­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers must pri­or­i­tize solu­tions that don’t leave any­one behind,” Hamil­ton says. Chil­dren deserve to thrive regard­less of their back­ground or in which state they live.”

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