Written by Anushka Angle
There has been a presence of increased anxiety and depression among children, along with a decrease in the time youth spend being physically active, which is an integral part of a child’s health and development. Even just a few years prior to the pandemic, a team found that between 2016-2019, childhood anxiety rose by 27% while depression risk rose by 24%. However, behavioral issues seemed to worsen when the pandemic struck. More than ever, the United States is seemingly unprepared to provide necessary pediatric preventive care and discuss the pressing problem of children’s mental health. Most adolescent years are spent in school, an environment where their cognitive and social development evolves significantly. But, due to lack of financial sources, stigma regarding children’s mental health, and lack of proper training in the field, a reassessment must be done to better integrate adequate child therapy in our society.
Why there is a stigma regarding children’s mental health?
Mental health has been a stigma in our community for decades and it has increased in children over the years. Stigma around mental health often results in a lack of understanding among parents, as well as fear that their child won’t be considered “normal.” Because of this, many parents fail to realize or accept that their child needs therapeutic attention. Children are meant to live in a care-free state before they face the pressures of being an adult, therefore it seems unlikely that a child can experience anxiety and/or depression over seemingly trivial matters. However, mental well-being is a key aspect of healthy child development since it can teach them how to cope with future challenges and stressors. But within minority groups such as Asian and African communities, mental disorders are considered to be taboo, a weakness, or a failure. This discourages parents from seeking treatment their kids deserve, in a time of increased expectations of success, rigorous school curriculum, and social media pressure, all of which add hardships to children’s lives today.
Image Credit: The Washington Post
Why is there a lack of adequate child therapy?
Not only is parental inability to recognize or acknowledge their child’s declining health part of the problem, but it’s equally due to the low supply of adequate child therapists for the increased demand of mental health services in our society. In fact, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that by 2025 the nation will have 10,000 fewer mental health professionals than it needs. This is partly due to lack of government funding to provide high-quality training in child and adolescent therapy. Clinical Director of Counseling and Training at the Western Tidewater Community Services Board in Suffolk, VA, Natalia Tague states, “The issue is the quality of education, training, and supervision many get. Along with a system that is set up to pay the least for the hardest jobs that actually need a more experienced provider.” Therefore, the average length of post graduate training for social workers, who are most commonly found in the field, is sufficient at two years. The quality of education, however, could use improvement. Child therapy is also not completely universal for all youth, as children with different ages require different aspects of therapy. While traditional talk therapy may suffice with adolescent children, it will not be beneficial for younger children where engagement with toys and games may be more apt. Additionally, since children share their story from unique perspectives, therapists need to receive insight from adults in their lives to get a complete picture. These external parties, also known as collateral contacts, are not covered by insurers despite being essential to proper treatment. Child therapists face a tall order since multiple roads can lead to effective care and small wages are provided by mental health agencies to find them, leading to a hesitation and decline in this profession overall. Therefore, it is imperative that federal and state governments invest and help fund mental health agencies so child and adolescent therapists can be properly compensated for their work.
Are schools actively doing anything to address their students’ mental health?
A majority of children spend their time at school, where teachers monitor a child’s academic and behavioral progress. Consequently, it is essential that school systems have correct measures in place regarding the mental health of their student body. School officials at a New York City K-12 private school were interviewed to see their stance on children’s mental health and what actions they have taken to contribute to the cause. The director of preschool through 5th grade, who wishes to remain anonymous, stated that they have “child and adolescent behavior trained assistants in every classroom to assist in monitoring the behavioral development of the students over the course of the year.” These assistants engage in communication with the student’s parents to analyze their developments both in school and at home. “If they have a behavior or attention problem at school we address the issue immediately and take measures such as alternating the play or assignment to help them,” she mentions. The school also dedicates a whole month for mental health awareness so even young students can be informed of its importance. If the child consistently demonstrates suffering through mental health difficulties, which are also exhibited at home, the school has a file of board certified trained, doctorate level psychologists that the school can refer parents to for additional counseling.
This private school in New York City is taking tremendous effort and means to ensure a nourishing mental health environment for their student body despite having a rigorous curriculum. However, a large factor for this initiative is the heavy funding that goes towards the schools to have these mental health programs in place. At a public elementary school in the suburban parts of New York, a colleague mentioned how in their school “there was only a guidance counselor to manage and address any form of mental health or behavioral issues” of which the guidance counselor mainly “dismissed their concerns and provided inadequate advice.” Comparing the two different schools, there is a vast difference in the measures taken by each to ensure adequate child and adolescent therapy. A crucial aspect of it has to do with federal and state funding, which can lead to better training for aspiring child therapists. Compared to the public school, the private school has ample external funding, and thus a significantly larger budget to place well-trained clinical child therapists at their school, which is vital for their students’ behavioral growth and development.
Children’s mental health has been an overlooked issue in American society for years and the shortage of child and adolescent therapists needs to be acknowledged before the decline continues. Corrective measures must be set in stone by schools and the government to ensure the safety of these children in order to benefit their future, as well as the future of our society.
Edited by: Anna Boyarinova