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Report cards show more New York and Connecticut students with mental illness

Researchers followed a group of kids from childhood into adulthood to track the link between trauma in early life and adult mental health.
Researchers followed a group of kids from childhood into adulthood to track the link between trauma in early life and adult mental health.

A campaign of national organizations that promotes mental health support in U.S schools has released report cards for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Hopeful Futures Campaign gave high marks to states like Connecticut and New York that require school psychologists, social workers and counselors to be on staff.

Colleen Merlo, the CEO of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, New York, said in her state, there are over 100,000 children living with depression who aren’t receiving support in schools. She plans to use the report to lobby for more school resources on Long Island.

“It might be they don't have adequate insurance and can't afford it, others are just not identified and connected,” Merlo said. “For some, it may be that there's nobody who looks like them, or speaks like them, so it might be an equity issue in terms of wanting to find a therapist who comes from a similar culture.”

At the federal level, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wants increased funding to train more child mental health professionals. He said $200 million in additional federal funding would help bring services to children who are experiencing behavioral health problems due to the pandemic.

"While trends in children’s mental health were a concern before, the social isolation, family stress, and financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. Children’s hospitals around the country are experiencing a surge in caseload as an increasing number of children are showing up to emergency departments with behavioral health issues," Blumenthal wrote in a letter to Senate Democratic leadership on Wednesday.

"This crisis has led to an overflow of young patients in hospitals with limited beds and long wait times, straining the pediatric health care capabilities. Due to the unique nature of children’s hospitals, many have not yet recovered from the impact of the pandemic."

Last year, Connecticut's Children's Medical Center in Hartford reported an uptick in children admitted to their health system for mental health issues.

Seeking help outside of school

The Hopeful Futures Campaign report cards found that for care outside of school, more children in New York and Connecticut have private insurance that covers mental or emotional health than compared to almost a decade ago.

  • In New York, there were 120,000 children that had private insurance that didn’t cover mental health in 2015 compared to 48,000 kids last year. 
  • In Connecticut, there were over 22,500 children with no assistance from private insurance for mental health in 2015 compared to 5,000 kids last year. 

Without care outside of school, having resources in schools is critical for children, according to the report. Merlo said that school social workers might be able to help students who are showing signs of mental health issues, especially if their families aren’t paying attention or not involved in the child’s life.

“These are individuals whose grades will be dropping,” Merlo said. “These are individuals who may be subjected to bullying or be bullies themselves and really be disruptive to the school environment. So if we can intervene by having that trained professional embedded in the school district who can actually make that intervention and support and then connect if needed.”

Improving who can help at school

The report recommends that schools should have a social worker for every 250 students. Connecticut schools have a social worker on staff for every 580 students while New York has a social worker for every 770 students.

Merlo said there’s room for improvement in New York. The state received high marks for being among a few others that requires school staff to be trained on substance abuse, mental health, and suicide awareness and prevention. Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal includes $10 million that would go towards hiring psychologists, social workers, and counselors to work in elementary, middle and high schools.

However, hiring mental health professionals in schools could be difficult with staffing shortages in the healthcare industry during the pandemic.

“Just like nursing staffs are on the frontlines, mental health professionals working both inside the school and outside of schools have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for a very long time,” Merlo said. “I will say that it is challenging to have individuals working in this field.”

Kids are burning out

The mental health impact that healthcare workers are feeling from the pandemic, Merlo said students are feeling that, too/

  • In 2015, there were 107,000 adolescents in New York living with depression. During the first two years of the pandemic, that increased to 157,000 and 179,000, respectively.
  • Connecticut didn’t start collecting data until 2019, but that year, the state reported having 16,000 adolescents living with depression. By 2021, that rose to 24,000 kids. 

“Everybody is feeling stressed and anxious and by reaching out, that's the first step towards feeling better,” Merlo said.
“Typically, if you don't get support, we know that these things snowball, they don't just go away. More burden is added to our plates not taken off, especially these days. So I would say to please reach out to someone. If it's a friend or a family member, or a crisis hotline number, reach out. You will feel better, you can feel better.”

Natalie is a former news fellow with WSHU Public Radio.