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The mental health of a child is as integral to their overall well-being as their physical health. Prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues are critical to ensuring that a child remains healthy through childhood and also grows into a healthy adult. 

Statistics about the scope of the mental health problem for American children are a wake-up call that the situation is serious and more must be done.

Did you know that half of all mental health disorders show first signs before a person turns 14 years old, and 79% of mental health disorders begin before age 24?

Did you know that typically, 11 years pass between the onset of symptoms in a child and when they first receive treatment

American children do not have easy access to care. Unlike when a child falls and breaks an arm, the child would be taken to an emergency room to be treated immediately. Or if a child suffers an asthma attack they would seek and receive immediate care. However, when a child or teen is experiencing a mental health crisis (anxiety, depression, eating disorders, contemplation of suicide, etc.) they may have nowhere to turn. There aren’t enough pediatric mental health professionals to see them, waiting lists are weeks and months long, some professionals only take cash payments – not insurance, and some health plans have outdated provider lists of doctors who are no longer seeing new patients. 

Similar to health care, disparities based on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity also exist in mental health care.

Did you know that more than 40% of youth who identify as LGBTQ, including more than half of all transgender and nonbinary youth, say they have seriously considered suicide in the last year?

Between 2007 and 2017, the suicide rate for Black children rose from 2.55 per 100,000 to 4.82 per 100,000, and suicide attempts are rising faster among Black youth than any other racial or ethnic group. As two authors noted in First Focus on Children’s Big Ideas 2023, “Pervasive inequities such as lack of access to high-quality, culturally sensitive mental health care; provider bias; and deficit-focused institutional practices harm children and families of color and deepen intergenerational and community trauma.”

The good news is that mental health policy solutions are being discussed in a bipartisan fashion by federal policymakers. Last summer, Congress passed The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law by President Biden. The legislation provides support for school-based mental health programs, Medicaid mental health services in schools, Medicaid and CHIP telehealth services, and the new 988 crisis lifeline. But to build a comprehensive pediatric behavioral health system, more must be done. 

First Focus on Children has identified some specific recommendations which we believe will make a huge difference in access to services and preventive efforts. We believe federal policymakers should:

  • Dramatically increase the pediatric mental health workforce
  • Expand peer-to-peer support programs for teens and young adults
  • Tailor 988 services to teens and young adults as part of the 988 suicide and crisis hotline
  • Ensure that all schools have mental health coordinators

Progress is being made. Let’s keep working together as we focus on prevention efforts and ensuring that when children, teens, and young adults need mental health services, they can easily access them.