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One in 12 Pa. high-schoolers attempted suicide last year; advocates seek counselors, social workers

Virus Outbreak children teen mental health emotional wellbeing
Christophe Ena
/
AP
A young girl walks with her mother inside the pediatric unit of the Robert Debre hospital, in Paris, France, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Doctors say the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of children is alarming and plain to see. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation backs up the doctors' observations, specifically for children in Pennsylvania.

While slightly fewer Pennsylvania children are in poverty or have a parent without secure employment compared to last year, mental health needs continue to increase across the state.

That’s according to new data from the Annie E Casey Foundation’s annual report on child wellbeing. Across the country, children are in the midst of what the U.S. Surgeon General has called a youth “mental health pandemic,” with an unprecedented number of children struggling with anxiety and depression.

In Pennsylvania, a quarter more kids are dealing with anxiety and depression than the year before. This year's report shows 282,000 children ages 3-17 were reported with those conditions, compared to 226,000 in the previous year. Across the commonwealth 1 in every 12 high schoolers attempted suicide last year, according to the report.

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Black and brown children are disproportionately represented in those increases. Nationally 9% of high schoolers attempted suicide last year while 12% of Black students, 13% of students of two or more races and 26% of American Indian or Native Alaskan high school students attempted suicide, according to a federal survey.

Educators and advocates attribute the increased mental health needs to the pandemic. They say the isolation and economic burdens on families exacerbated existing issues.

Jamie Baxter with Pittsburgh-based Allies for Children says the data echoes what they’ve heard in western Pennsylvania.

“We know that schools have been just overwhelmed with the mental health concerns,” she said.

The organization partnered with 1Hood Media in a project that asked students what their biggest challenge has been during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common concern was students' mental health.

Both Baxter and the Annie E. Casey Foundation recommend policymakers provide enough funding to schools so that they can hire more counselors and social workers.

Baxter said officials also need "to engage partners in the communities and recognize that [schools] can’t solve it themselves. They need to rely on expertise within the community to really help leverage support and to meet the students where they are."

The report ranked Pennsylvania 24th for the number of uninsured children. During the pandemic children have had uninterrupted access through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP. The coverage includes mental health and social-emotional development screenings during regular checkups.

But nearly 350,000 children are at risk of losing their health care coverage whenever a COVID-driven freeze on disenrollments is lifted.

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a record number of children enrolled in Medicaid, and one of our goals is to ensure they stay covered when the federal public health emergency ends,” said Kari King, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “The state can support child mental health by ensuring it is thoughtful and proactive in its approach when it begins to redetermine eligibility for all children enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP.”

The organization recommends that families make sure their contact information is up to date through the Department of Human Services, so that they complete their renewals without a lapse in coverage.

Corrected: August 8, 2022 at 3:31 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct a statistic in the original headline.
Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.