Richmond Free Press Op-Ed 2/3/2022

Prioritizing our Kids’ Mental Health

There is something we have to come to terms with as we enter the third year of the pandemic: Our kids are not ok. 

Many families, advocates, school personnel, and mental health clinicians have been warning for years that children’s mental health access is in a state of emergency. One in five children in Virginia had a diagnosed mental health condition such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression, according to 2019 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT center.

COVID has made the crisis worse. 

Throughout the past two years, I’ve heard from parents – many of whom faced their own challenges coping with the stress of COVID – struggling to help their children. The combination of the pandemic, racial trauma in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and individual traumatic experiences are causing anxiety, depression, and more severe mental health issues in students. 

Outpatient clinicians that had waiting lists for several months and emergency departments were filling up with children in mental health crises without other options. 

As students returned to school, reports of behavioral disruptions and mental health issues grew. 

It became clear to me as a parent that mental health is causing major distress and barriers to learning.

Studies from the Kaiser Health Foundation have shown that 30% of parents report that their children’s and their own mental health has worsened. And the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a “National Emergency” in children’s mental health.

Now is the time to act.

Yet, less than 10% of the systemwide budget for Virginia’s mental health system is dedicated to services for children and youth.

To address the children’s mental health crisis, I am sponsoring several items to bring more resources to connect our schools to mental health services.

Delegate Marcia Price and I are working on a school-based mental health integration pilot to connect schools to community-based mental health services. This program will provide $10 million each year to local school divisions to contract for community-based mental health services for students from public or private community-based providers. 

Another budget amendment requires the Behavioral Health Commission to conduct a study of how to maximize school-based mental health services across the Commonwealth.

My SB 490 implementing the Board of Education’s recommended Standards of Quality will increase the number of specialized student support positions–school social workers, psychologists, nurses, or licensed mental health professionals–from 3 to 4 per 1,000 students. I have also introduced a budget amendment to finally lift the cap on state funding of such support personnel. Put in place to balance the budget during the recession in 2008, this cap has shifted funding to localities, placing a strain on their ability to fill these positions.

These are just a few of the many steps we must take now to strengthen Virginia’s mental health system to address the growing needs of children and families.

I look forward to sharing my views on how best to support our students before the General Assembly — and hearing from you. Please feel free to share your views on legislation with me at [email protected] or (804) 698-7509. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram @JennMcClellanVA or on Facebook @SenJenniferMcClellan. More information on my 2022 legislative agenda can be found at jennifermcclellan.com. 


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