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Sounding the Alarm on the Youth Mental Health Crisis

The youth of America are experiencing a dramatic decline in mental health, putting both their current lives and their futures at risk. Even before the advent of COVID-19, disturbing trends like depression, self-harm and suicide were on the rise. The pandemic intensified the problem for a variety of reasons, including a lack of in-person schooling and social interactions, reduced access to healthcare and social services, food and housing challenges, and loss of caregivers to illness. The people most affected were youth who were already in a vulnerable state, from racial and ethnic minorities to LGBTQ+ individuals to homeless youth.

For months, respected health authorities have been speaking out to bring attention to what has become a countrywide crisis. In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association (AAP-AACAP-CHA) jointly declared a National State of Emergency in children’s mental health. A few months later, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare public advisory about the youth mental health crisis.

The statistics surrounding youth mental health are grim. According to the AAP-AACAP-CHA:

  • By 2018, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. There were an estimated 6,600 suicide deaths among this age group in 2020.
  • More than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted.
  • There was a significant increase in emergency department visits for children with mental health emergencies in 2020.

The need for reform in our approach to behavioral health.

Clearly, it’s time for our nation to substantially change our approach as we seek to increase access to prevention and early intervention systems and improve behavioral health programs in our communities. National health leaders have proposed various measures to manage the crisis, from increasing federal funding to collecting data in a timely manner to addressing the economic and social barriers that often create poor mental health. We must also focus on the unique needs of today’s youth and consider the potentially negative effects of technology. Integrating treatment more closely between our healthcare and educational systems could also yield positive results.  

As the insurer of nearly half of the children in the U.S., Medicaid is absolutely vital to improving youth mental health. The Early Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment Program available through Medicaid is specifically designed to meet children’s health and developmental needs and can support multiple approaches to prevention and early intervention. The program includes early assessment, periodic updates, screening, diagnosis and treatment. Ensuring that Medicaid recipients are taking advantage of these benefits is another important step in identifying and treating troubled youth.

Legislators have allocated new funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and provided additional COVID-19 grant support. These funds should be employed to create and bolster prevention and early intervention systems and expand existing behavioral health programs for youth. Grant funds have also been allocated for youth suicide prevention and other mental health initiatives under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Building new systems for analysis, treatment and support.

As government, healthcare and educational leaders try to solve the complex issues related to youth mental health, Gainwell Technologies is committed to supporting Medicaid and other health and human services programs in our collective goal of addressing this urgent crisis. We believe there are opportunities to leverage information technology and, specifically, predictive analytics, to identify those at the greatest risk and provide actionable insights to help healthcare systems deliver better care to vulnerable populations.

In his health advisory, the U.S. Surgeon General provided a topline recommendation that every child have access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental healthcare. Now that the alarm has been loudly sounded, we should all join together to heed the call.