White House seeks to address childhood mental health crisis

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WASHINGTON — Hoping to stem what has widely been described as a crisis in mental health, the Biden administration is investing $35 million in suicide prevention, counseling and other programs meant to address the depression, anxiety and other disorders that, research indicates, have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Mental health is fundamental to the overall health and well-being of our country’s children and young adults,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement ahead of the announcement. The department said Becerra would travel the nation to tout the program. He discussed mental health in New Hampshire last week and was to travel to his native California on Wednesday, where he was to meet with lawmakers in an effort to highlight the new initiative. While there, he is also slated to discuss homelessness, a burgeoning crisis on the West Coast that has a significant mental illness component.

“This is just the first round of funding opportunities,” an official at the Department of Health and Human Services told Yahoo News.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services.
Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, speaks at Germanna Community College in Virginia on Feb. 10. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The $35 million will come from last year’s coronavirus relief bill, as well as from other funds appropriated to agencies across the federal government. The seven grant programs in the new initiative will include a suicide prevention program on college campuses, school-based counseling, family counseling and services for children experiencing psychosis.

“We want to reach kids where they are,” the HHS official said.

The state of American mental health, for children and adults alike, had been a concern well before the pandemic — but two years of social isolation, death and other disruptions have led to a collective deterioration in emotional well-being. Public health officials are hoping to urgently address the issue as fears of COVID-19 appear to be receding.

“I have lost sleep after having these conversations with parents and mental health providers,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from the Boston area who became aware of how pervasive the problem had become in 2021 as he pushed for schools to reopen in his district.

Late last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory calling attention to the problem and promising to work on providing every American child with “access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care.”

An accompanying report pointed to a global study of 80,000 children that found that “depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic,” with 25 percent and 20 percent of respondents, respectively, reporting symptoms of those conditions. Murthy’s report also pointed to a 51 percent jump in suspected suicide attempts by adolescent American girls.

A young girl walking.
Getty Images

In his State of the Union address last week, President Biden also addressed the crisis, vowing to “take on mental health. Especially among our children, whose lives and education have been turned upside down.”

The goal of effective, easily accessible youth mental health across the country is likely to cost billions in the long run. Mental health care can be lacking in both rural America and neglected city neighborhoods where medical care has been sparse — and, in many cases, dwindling. Lockdowns and remote learning severed social and emotional ties; in March of last year, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children in remote and hybrid learning arrangements were experiencing symptoms of mental health distress more frequently than children who were back in the classroom.

American children “are swimming in sources of anxiety,” Auchincloss told Yahoo News. “We need to use this pandemic as a rallying cry.” He and others hope that increased attention to the issue will remove some of the stigma associated with emotional distress and shed light on the shortfalls of a mental health infrastructure simply not equipped to handle the current crisis.

Doctors have reported long waits for hospital beds and “logjams” for web-based counseling. And some school districts have started giving students “mental health days” to help them cope with pandemic-related stress.

A recent Boston Globe headline put the matter bluntly: “We need an Operation Warp Speed for kids’ mental health,” it read, referencing the Trump administration effort, in partnership with private industry, to successfully develop the coronavirus vaccine. The cost was $12 billion.