Dr. Dave A. Chokshi is the New York City Health Commissioner, Meisha Porter is the School Chancellor of New York City, and Chirlane McCray is the First Lady of New York City.
Covid-19 raced through New York City during the peak of the outbreak last winter, and workers at a youth center in the South Bronx were particularly concerned about a mother and her four children riding it out at a homeless shelter.
The mother was desperate for a job and worried about her children. The kids – ages 5, 6, 9, and 11 – were constantly reported late for school because of the spotty WiFi for remote learning. The 11-year-old became acutely anxious watching her family struggle, and the youngest was sad and uncomfortable when he went into the classroom and said he missed his mother.
The pain these children felt is an example of what too many underserved families endured during the pandemic. But studies show that children from all kinds of families suffered as well, if only because they lost their routines and missed their friends. Others watched family members die, fall ill, or suffer as a result of their caregivers being lost or reduced in their jobs.
We have to support them all. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, we have a unique opportunity to develop a national roadmap to support the mental health of our young people. Since most lifelong mental illnesses begin before age 24 and half before age 14, the sooner we recognize depression, anxiety or other problems, the sooner we can offer appropriate treatment.
School is a good start: whole child education is not just about reading, writing and arithmetic. We know that good social and emotional skills and good mental health are essential for a productive and healthy life. We need to think about mental health as part of the return to school in 2021, beyond the focus on physical health and Covid safety.
As students across the country return to socially distant and disinfected classrooms with their backpacks and books, some will hop for joy to see friends and teachers, and some will be bleak or even traumatized by their experiences during the pandemic.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between April and October 2020, the rate of emergency visits for children ages 5-11 increased by 24% compared to the same time in 2019. Colorado Children’s Hospital im May be declared a mental emergency.
And in a national survey in 2021, 46% of parents said their teenagers had shown signs of new or worsening mental health status since the pandemic.
We see a similar trend in New York City. A new citywide survey by the Department of Health found that 1 in 5 parents or guardians said that the emotional or behavioral health of a child in their home was negatively impacted by the pandemic, and a third of respondents said that the emotional and social wellbeing of a child was a child been a source of stress.
Here in the largest school district in the country, our educational leaders are proactively responding to this mental health crisis by providing a historic expansion of services to young people and families.
Starting this fall, we will be offering a universal, school-based screening from kindergarten through 12th grade to identify students who are in need, have experienced trauma or have other mental health problems. The new program is completely voluntary and confidential. We hire hundreds of social workers, psychologists, and family helpers – every single school in New York City will have at least one full-time social worker or school mental health clinic.
For schools in the districts hardest hit by Covid, there are accelerated referrals to public clinics for students who need ongoing treatment. We also provide training for educators to address and respond to student needs in a trauma-informed manner, and expand mental health resources and parenting training.
However, these services will only work if we have enough culturally competent health care providers and a way to get access to and pay for treatments. We urgently need more mental health providers from black, indigenous and other colored communities. We also need support for community-based organizations that provide mental health care as part of a wider health program.
A roadmap for a solid mental health recovery plan should also provide schools with a curriculum for socio-emotional learning. SEL is a proven educational approach that is used in schools nationwide. Students learn to recognize their emotions and resolve difficult feelings, build relationships, and resolve conflicts. Schools can also provide adolescent and adolescent mental health first aid, teaching the signs and symptoms of mental illness and drug problems and how to respond appropriately.
As we value our children and our future, we must also seize this moment to urge national investment. We are delighted that the House recently passed the Student Mental Health Act. This law provides for $ 130 million in competitive grants of up to $ 2 million each to expand the Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education program. The program offers locally licensed mental health professionals in schools across the country. We need to urge lawmakers to support the Senate passing the bill.
Future generations will judge us by the choices we make today. Our goal cannot be to return to normal. Normal means that too many students in this country do not have access to adequate health care, including psychiatric care. Mental health must be at the center of a full recovery from the pandemic, especially for our children.