Amid Growing Crisis, Federal Officials Call on States to Prioritize Youth Mental Health

Amid a startling rise in youth mental health issues, six government agencies on Wednesday called on states to better leverage federal funding so they can prioritize children’s well-being.

In a joint letter, first shared with NBC News, federal agency leaders called the problem a “national youth mental health crisis” and encouraged states to carefully plan how they use block grants, state Medicaid plans, waivers, and other resources from multiple federal agencies so they are executed without duplication.

The Department of Health and Human Services plan also offered ways for states to expand mental health services for children. It was signed by the leaders of six HHS agencies: the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Administration for Children and Families and the Community Life Administration.

Anxiety and depression in children were already on the rise before the pandemic, and they have been made worse by lockdowns, school closures and social isolation, among other factors, experts say. Data shows that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children aged 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety increased by 29%, while those diagnosed with depression increased by 27%; from 2019 to 2020, the number of children diagnosed with behavioral or conduct problems increased by 21%.

Wednesday’s letter does not imply allocating more money to address the issue on top of the funds the Biden administration has previously invested. Rather, it offers support for states, tribes and jurisdictions to maximize existing federal funding streams as part of the “whole of government” mental health strategy that President Joe Biden outlined in his state of the art address. the Union to transform mental health services.

As an example of means of coordination, he cited the development of a statewide Children’s Mental Health Task Force that incorporated data from various federally funded programs, including early childhood programs, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and others, to find gaps where states need to expand testing and treatment.

Addressing mental health has been a major focus of the Biden administration and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is on a national tour to hear from Americans about the challenges they face.

“At HHS, I called on our leaders across the department to work together and pull every available lever to support President Biden’s call to strengthen the mental health of Americans,” Becerra said in a press release. “Today we call on our state, tribal and community partners to do the same, especially for our little ones.”

The plan comes at a time when there is an increase in the number of children and adolescents in need of care, but there are far too few staff to help them, said Ariste Sallas-Brookwell, a worker social licensed clinician who is the director of behavioral health integration at Mary’s Center, a community health center serving nearly 60,000 people of all ages in the Washington, DC metro area. Mary’s Center is a recipient of a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“There is a significant gap between the number of providers we have to provide services for children and the need, the demand, that we see for those services,” Sallas-Brookwell said.

The pandemic has amplified children’s problems, she added.

“We saw an increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm,” she said. “We know parents and caregivers were much more stressed because they didn’t have the same child care or family support. They were financially strained. All of these things have an impact on children.

In exclusive interviews ahead of the release of the HHS plan, two federal agency leaders who signed the letter expressed optimism that it would fit well with efforts already underway by the Biden administration.

The budget request for fiscal year 2023, for example, would make a “significant commitment” to training more behavioral health care providers, said Carole Johnson, administrator of health resources and services administration.

His hope is that the HHS plan will reveal to states that there are several ways to leverage federal grants to get more mental health services for children.

“We think there are a lot of opportunities here, and we want to work with our state partners to identify those opportunities,” she said.

January Contreras, the administration’s assistant secretary for children and families, described the plan as “breaking down silos” between agencies.

“The value we share is that young people’s mental health is just as important as physical health,” she said.

As well as strengthening the workforce so there is more access to mental health care for children, Contreras said she hopes the plan will make mental health care for young people more equitable. . The workforce should be strengthened “in a culturally competent, multilingual and geographically diverse way”, she said.

Contreras, Johnson and several other letter signatories will host a roundtable on Wednesday afternoon with people who provide mental health services to hear about their experiences in providing care and identify opportunities for collaboration.

It is extremely important that we invest in programs that support children and adolescents to prevent the results from getting worse over time. »

Sallas-Brookwell, who will be at the roundtable, said the labor shortage in her industry is one of the most pressing priorities to address to help children.

“If we are able to intervene early in life, we are often able to prevent more serious diseases later in life,” she said. “It is extremely important that we invest in programs that support children and adolescents to prevent the results from getting worse.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME at 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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