The kids are not alright

By Angela Asch

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an important reminder to acknowledge and discuss mental health to reduce stigma, increase access, and improve child and adolescent well-being. As evidenced by a recent CSBA survey, student mental health is important to CSBA members, who identified it as one of their top concerns. This priority is  featured prominently in findings from CSBA’s COVID funding report series.

Youth mental health in the U.S.

Compounded and amplified by the pandemic, poor mental health among youth has reached crisis levels. In addition to living through a pandemic, youth must navigate a myriad of stressors, from climate disruptions like floods and wildfires that cause school closures to human-caused stressors like cyberbullying, harassment, peer-to-peer violence, and worries about school and mass shootings. These disruptive events and stressors, as well as other societal issues like increasing poverty, have taken a toll on youth mental health.

In its 2023 report, the nonprofit Mental Health America noted that, “2.7 million youth are experiencing severe major depression and 60 percent of youth with major depression do not receive mental health treatment.” In addition, one in 10 adolescents with private insurance did not have access to mental health care services.

Researchers found that during the pandemic, 67 percent of high school students experienced a multitude of stressors that added to their mental distress, including:

  • not having enough food to eat (24 percent)
  • experiencing physical abuse (11 percent)
  • experiencing some emotional abuse in the home (55 percent)
Disparities between student groups

Some student groups report higher incidences of mental health concerns. For example, the U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People by the Trevor Project found that among the more than 28,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 surveyed, 41 percent reported seriously considering a suicide attempt in the last year, 67 percent reported feelings of anxiety and 54 percent reported feeling depressed. Youth reported negative experiences at school — such as harassment, physical or verbal abuse, mistreatment and excessive discipline — as a catalyst to their poor mental health. Further, 81 percent reported wanting mental health care but not being able to access it (54 percent). Fear, stigma, cost and parental disagreements over care all created barriers to access.

To add to these disparities, youth of color suffer greater negative mental health consequences than their white peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports in Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among High School Students — Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2021, “Black female students had an increased prevalence of suicide attempts and Hispanic female students had an increased prevalence of suicide attempts that required medical treatment compared with white female students.”

Youth mental health in California

A 2022 poll conducted by The California Endowment found that among the almost 800 youth ages 18-24 surveyed, mental health ranked as an extremely serious or very serious problem (82 percent). Further, 57 percent of participants rated their mental health as fair or poor. Participants cited feelings of anxiety, worry and feeling extremely overwhelmed over the last 12 months.

Another troubling trend is deaths by suicide among youth ages 12-17, which showed a declining trend starting in 2016, but spiked again during the first year of the pandemic as reported by Public Policy Institute of California. Safe and supportive environments where all children and adolescents learn, recreate and develop are essential to improving these negative mental health trends.

Positive school cultures support student mental health and well-being

Building a caring school culture includes fostering positive student mental health supports for healthy development by building awareness around the need for and services provided, while also simplifying access to these services. This is a community responsibility that includes schools, community partners and agencies like public health and community health clinics, elected officials and families. Districts and county offices of education should collaborate with community partners and families to alleviate stressors, enhance strategies and build networks to ensure students receive the care they deserve when they need it so they can learn, grow and thrive.

CSBA-sponsored bills on student health

Assembly Bill 483 (Muratsuchi, D-Torrance) aims to improve access to student health services by streamlining reimbursement and funding for the Medi-Cal Local Education Agency Medi-Cal Billing Option Program (LEA BOP). AB 483 will help increase funding available to support student health services by improving LEA BOP and requiring the Department of Health Care Services to streamline its auditing process. AB 483 would require the state to help schools navigate the complex administrative and documentation requirements, as well as develop corrective plans to respond to errors found in audits. This reform will provide schools with the necessary support system to apply, receive and keep every reimbursement dollar and use it for the benefit of students.

Senate Bill 551 (Portantino D-Burbank,) would require county mental health departments to work directly with LEAs in the provision of student mental health services using Proposition 63 funding and enhance the collaboration between county mental health agencies and school districts. Counties are already required to spend at least 20 percent of this funding on prevention and intervention services and 51 percent of that prevention funding on people aged 25 and younger. SB 551 would require that counties include a person 25 years or younger on their mental health board. This would ensure that youth have a seat at the table and can advocate for the services that will benefit students the most.

Resources to support student mental health and well-being

Angela Asch is a CSBA education policy analyst.