April 24, 2024

We need action on the youth mental health crisis, not more talk

The statistics on youth mental health are not only alarming but deeply frightening for anyone who has children or cares about them.

According to a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 44.2 percent of the participating teens reported that they had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Almost 20 percent considered suicide and9 percent attempted suicide. New reports from the federal government show troubling relationships between social media use and youth mental health, as well as American girls experiencing increasing sadness.

We’re at an unprecedented time, when every stakeholder — from the federal government to states and providers, as well as youths themselves and their families — are demanding action. Yet those calls for action have not led to coordinated efforts to transform the mental health system for children and improve the mental health of our youth.

In fact, today we are still using the “same old” traditional approaches to funding and building “systems of care” that are not meeting the needs of today’s young people. To realize ambitious systemic and mental health goals, we must begin to organize and connect youth mental health systems to use government funding more effectively so that our children receive the care they need, when and where they need it.

How? My organization, MITRE, laid out a strategic vision identifying 14 recommendations focused on prevention, equity, workforce development, and federal funding alignment to realize a more effective and accessible mental health system.

First, we recommend that the United States adopt a public health approach that encourages and increases protective factors and healthy behaviors to help prevent the onset of serious mental disorders and reduce risk factors that lead to the development of disorders.

Additionally, the health community must focus on equity and social determinants of mental health to address social/political constructs and historical systemic injustices, such as racism and discriminatory structures and policies, that disproportionately impact the mental health of young people of color and LGBT youth, persons with disabilities and medically vulnerable youth, and those living in rural areas.

The workforce serving young people is plagued by shortages, high turnover, lack of diversity, geographic unevenness, and low wages and reimbursement. Therefore, the mental health workforce and the support and services they deliver must be accessible where children live, work, play and pray, including those places most readily used by young people: schools and health care providers.

Also key is that federal funding and policies be better aligned to optimize a mental health system that assures data standards, quality and accountability in prevention, clinical care and system performance.

There is reason for optimism from the public sector, and momentum. Congress has drafted bipartisan legislation and the White House is directing funds and clarifying payment policies to expand care access for children in their communities, including schools. The Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies have taken numerous actions to support programs to address this critical issue.

Furthermore, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in June 2022, includes several provisions targeted at expanding access to care for children, adolescents and young adults, with a specific focus on expanding funding and access for mental health services. The Biden administration is continuing to push the issue, proposing new rules on July 25, 2023, to ensure that insurers pay their share of mental healthcare, in alignment with the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.

And at the state level, bipartisan governors are advocating for a new approach to the youth mental health crisis, too. For example, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, former chairman of the National Governors Association, developed a governor’s playbook to comprehensively address youth mental health.

The public increasingly expects that our nation’s significant investments, innovation and technology can help improve the mental health of our young people. It’s time for federal, state and local organizations to partner with private payers, foundations and other critical organizations to take immediate action to develop strategies for using federal financing more effectively.

Let’s join forces to make it happen now.

Cheryl Austein Casnoff is managing director of the Healthcare Payment Innovation & Quality Division at MITRE, operator of the CMS Alliance to Modernize Healthcare federally funded research and development center (Health FFRDC).

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