A Pediatrician’s Advice for Grownups About Youth Mental Health and How Congress Can Help
There are reasons to be hopeful about the state of youth mental health, even as we remain alarmed by the acceleration of mental health crises in youth following the pandemic.
As parents prepare their children to head back to school, many wonder what they can do to protect them from suffering a mental health crisis. What are the warning signs? What should they look for? How would they know when to seek help and whether that help would even be available?
Unlike the generation I grew up in, youth today are far more willing to open up about their struggles when we are willing to ask. The basic advice we give to every parent who wants to know what they should be doing is simple: Check in with your child. Ask how they are doing.
Of course, for some youth, talking about mental health challenges isn’t enough. They need greater care that we know can be difficult to access given available workforce and physical space. At Seattle Children’s, we have kids in our emergency room daily waiting for inpatient psychiatry beds because there are more kids in crisis than we have capacity to accommodate. This is true of many other children’s hospitals around the nation.
Our children have been through a lot. During the pandemic their routines were completely disrupted, their social networks disappeared or became increasingly online, and they missed formative opportunities offered through sports and other organized activities. Some lost the safety and stability offered by teachers and a classroom. At the same time, social media compounds many of our youth’s struggles.
Yet, they built a remarkable capacity to share and acknowledge their feelings and what they are going through, disrupting the stigma around talking about mental health. It’s a remarkable feat and we don’t give them enough credit for how they’ve changed the way we discuss and ultimately confront mental health.
As chair of the Children’s Hospital Association board, I see that children’s hospitals across the country are exploring how to handle this collective societal challenge in youth mental health. We’re also trying to establish a pipeline of future leaders in the medical profession and build more health equity around access to care and health outcomes for all. We cannot do this critical work alone.
Congress must prioritize children’s unique mental health care needs and those of the pediatric mental and behavioral health workforce, when considering mental health and substance use disorder legislation. Introduced by Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the Helping Kids Cope Act takes critical steps to bolster the pediatric mental health workforce and improve the availability of a full continuum of mental health care for kids. Solutions include improving access to community-based services and support, enhancing and expanding the pediatric mental health workforce and investing in critical pediatric mental health infrastructure.
And with the pending reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act before Congress, there is an opportunity to invest in the growth of our pediatric workforce, and in a way that ensures more timely access to pediatric mental health care during pandemics and public health emergencies.
In a recent survey around the major challenges faced by children’s hospitals, 84% of experts said workforce shortages impacted the delivery of pediatric mental health care during the COVID-19 and RSV surges.
We can replace the stigma around mental health with a spark to inspire a diverse group of future leaders. If we invest in pipelines that encourage science and how it can lead to treatments and solutions around behavioral health, we will be following our children’s lead in better understanding mental health, studying it, and being a part of solutions that can help people of all ages find relief.
Dr. Jeff Sperring is a pediatrician and chief executive officer of Seattle Children’s. He is the chair of the Children’s Hospital Association’s board of trustees. You can reach out to @seattlechildren and @hospitals4kids about these topics.