We Need to Support Children’s Mental Health Immediately. Here’s How.

School may (almost) be out for summer, but that doesn’t mean the current crisis surrounding children’s mental health will suddenly disappear.

Ever since leaders at Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “pediatric mental health ‘state of emergency’” and asked for state funding to address the increased demand for children’s mental health services they’ve seen these last few months, stories about similar situations in other parts of the country have started to surface. In Iowa, for example, there was just a story about a mom who was told in January by eight clinicians that they couldn’t see her son until May. And in Connecticut, Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital saw a doubling of patients coming in for mental health care daily at the beginning of May – often putting them in a situation where they had more people coming in for care than they had open beds to offer.

This problem is indeed growing, but it’s not a new one. As I have written about here before, we have major issues in our country with helping people who have mental health needs.  

Dr. Paul Summergrad – my friend and an advisory board member for Well Being Trust – and I penned a piece for The Colorado Sun about this issue earlier this week, explaining that while we do need beds to help our kids in the short-term, realistically, we also need a solution to this issue that runs far deeper. Now that it’s abundantly clear that school closures alone aren’t the reason why kids are struggling, we need to acknowledge the multitude of reasons why that might be the case, and do a better job of connecting them to care – nearly four in five children do not receive the mental health services they need. 

One of the best ways to connect anyone to care, children or adults, is to meet them where they are. And where do kids spend the majority of their time? At home, in schools, and during these warmer months, summer camps. That’s why Dr. Summergrad and I recommended that legislators and leaders:

· Help schools learn how to put regular screenings in place to identify problems early;

· Offer accessible, tiered mental health supports and services to promote students’ academic, social, and psychological development;

· Ensure a team of mental health professionals is in each school;

· Equip educators with mental health literacy training;

· Work collaboratively with the community to create care pathways so students can build on progress made in school;

· Bring mental health services into pediatric primary care offices, as they tend to be parents’ go-to when their kids are struggling; 

· And use evidence-based trainings like those in Harvard’s EMPOWER program to train every community member – teachers, summer camp counselors, parents and more – on how to help someone presenting with mental health needs.

Many of these are the same solutions recently put forth by Inseparable, a growing coalition of people from across the country – myself included – who share a common goal of fundamentally improving mental health care policy. They just launched their Hopeful Futures Campaign in an effort to mobilize a moment to adequately address our adolescent mental health crisis.

Thanks to some great feedback I got on my post about the three questions we all need to start asking each other, I’m going to spend the rest of this post discussing what YOU specifically can do to help move these efforts forward. There are so many things to say and explain about mental health, sometimes concrete action items can get lost, or the role that all of us can play in policymaking easily forgotten.

WHAT CAN I DO …

… As a parent?

If you’re a parent concerned about your child’s mental health, the first thing you need to know is that you are not alone. I’m a parent too, and even though I have a background in this space, I still worry about my girls’ mental health and well-being.

A very close second is that it’s OK to not know everything about what signs of struggle look like, how to get your child access to care, and likewise how to pay for it. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. It just makes you an American – our country still has a long way to go in making mental health something we talk about and set out to improve in the same way we do our physical health.

Seeing the need for a resource that offers parents guidance on what to do if the care their child needs isn’t covered by their insurance, Carmen Bombeke – a senior engineer for a small Maine-based engineering firm and mom whose son found himself in dire need of mental health care – worked with Well Being Trust to create a guide advising parents on what they can do to potentially get their children's mental health care covered by their insurance. Keep an eye out for it to go live here soon.

In addition,  just be there for your kids no matter how helpless you feel about what you can actually do for their situation. Be honest. Model what it’s like to talk about your emotions. Sit still and listen. In today’s world, where there’s so much constant motion, being still and present is powerful unto itself.

And finally, have hope. Know that there are people out there who can help. 

… As an advocate? 

As an ally for mental health, you can do your part to chart a positive path for the future of children’s mental health – the future of America’s mental health, really – by reaching out to your elected officials and encouraging them to pass the multiple pieces of related legislation that just passed the House:

· The Mental Health Services for Students Act (H.R.721), which seeks to provide support for school-based mental health services – including screening, treatment, and outreach programs – through the Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) State Educational Agency Grant Program;

· The Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act (H.R.1475), which seeks to address disparities in youth mental health care with the authorization $805 million in grants and other funding;

· And the STANDUP Act (H.R. 586), which would provide funding for priority mental health needs to state, tribal, and local educational agencies.

You can find your state senator’s contact information here if you’d like to help us reiterate the importance of these bills. However, remember that if there are other solutions you’d like to see brought forward, you can do that. Policymaking isn’t something that only political leaders can do.

Will legislation alone fix this problem? No, but it can sure help us in the moment. While we work to address the underlying problem and the larger structural solutions that create an actual mental health system, by taking action today, we can all play our part – no matter what part that is – in keeping more hospitals from declaring a “pediatric mental health ‘state of emergency.’” Our kids are depending on it.