opinion | Investing in children’s mental health needs to be a national priority

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Now, almost every time I’m in the clinic, I see pediatric patients who are so overcome with depression and/or anxiety that they can’t find joy in things that used to bring them happiness. Just last week I saw an adolescent patient who was so incredibly anxious that she has not been able to attend school consistently since returning to personal study, despite a strong desire to be back in the classroom.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest budget proposal for the upcoming school year includes a heavy investment in school-based mental health services, which would help fund teacher training, mental health screening and more on-campus mental health professionals. By taking this critical, long-overdue step, by prioritizing our children’s mental health, and by meeting them where they are – at school – we hope to be able to meet some of their needs and help them in the classroom, in the field and to be successful at home.

Here are a few ways it does that.

First, building on last year’s budget that resulted in the hiring of more mental health professionals in schools, this budget includes more resources to help districts hire hundreds more on-campus nurses, psychologists and social workers and offers every school Free access to quality mental health care Health screenings so that administration, staff and faculty have an accurate understanding of the state of mental health on their campus to better coordinate efforts and resources.

Second, the plan proposes a necessary expansion of school health centers for children and young people. These are health clinics housed in school buildings and run by doctors in communities where families do not have access to medical care. Today there are over 100 campuses throughout Michigan serving 200,000 students annually. This budget would allow for the addition of 40 more sites that will go to chronically underserved or understaffed regions of our state with limited access to care. The implications of providing affordable, quality mental and physical health care to our children who need it most are clear – it will help them stay safe and engaged in the classroom so they can thrive outside of it.

Third, the budget proposes a partnership with TRAILS, an organization that provides teacher training to complement school-based mental health programs. While half of young Michiganders are affected by mental illness, only one in five is treated. TRAILS uses a three-pronged approach of universal awareness, early intervention, and suicide risk management to ensure each teacher has the tools and knowledge needed to address immediate concerns or help their students seek the professional help they need.

Today, one in six children and adolescents in the United States is diagnosed with a mental illness annually, and suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 10 to 18 in the United States October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association to declare a national child and adolescent mental health emergency.

Despite these shocking statistics, all too often I hear from my patients’ parents that they cannot find mental health support and have been on therapy waiting lists for months with no end in sight. These interactions keep reminding me that recognizing the crisis is not enough – we must act.

Raising a child takes an entire village, and that includes parents, teachers, medical professionals and our elected leaders. Governor Whitmer’s budget proposal would be a step in the right direction to combat the mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. I urge the Michigan Legislature and the Governor to work side by side to accomplish this.

I have to believe in it for our children.

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