Health and mental health providers, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are warning that US children and adolescents are facing a mental health state of emergency. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of many behavioral health conditions affecting children and youth had been escalating. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10–24. The proportion of all emergency department visits for kids related to mental health increased substantially in 2020. Use of services related to intentional self-harm, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions also increased since the start of the pandemic. Too many youth—more than 48,000—remain confined in facilities away from home because of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. Urgent action is clearly required to help America’s kids.

The pandemic has created additional financial stress, loss of loved ones, and educational and social disruptions for many children. For the more than 12 million US children who live in families with incomes below the poverty line, there are additional pressures that can reduce health and well-being, including homelessness and food insecurity. These forms of disadvantage have been directly tied to child brain development and mental health. Children who have experienced mental health challenges are more likely to experience mental illness, addiction, and other chronic medical conditions as adults, so these rates of illness are not just having impact today but are likely to reverberate through US society when these children are adults.

We can act to help kids thrive now and grow into healthy adults. Doing right by kids requires simultaneously preventing as many of them as possible from experiencing mental health problems and providing services for those who do. Roughly half of US children with a mental health disorder did not receive mental health treatment in 2019, and the unmet need for mental health for children of color in the US is higher than that of White children. Expanding access to mental health and addiction services, especially services that are available in communities, rather than in hospitals and residential facilities, is a national imperative.

Read the full article about behavioral health services for children by Vikki Wachino, Richard G. Frank, Keith Humphreys, and John O’Brien at Brookings.