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Report warns of mental health ‘pandemic’ among children

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Aug 10, 2022

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

First lady Jill Biden speaks with, from left, youth mental health leader Ayanna Kelly, youth mental health leader Juan Acosta, and actress and mental health advocate Selena Gomez, during the White House Conversation on Youth Mental Health on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at the White House in Washington.

More than 13% of Utah children struggle with anxiety or depression, or both.

According to a new 50-state report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Utah kids rank fourth in the nation when it comes to education, economy and community welfare. However, like most children nationwide, Utah kids are facing a mental “Pandemic on top of a pandemic” where mental health is concerned. This information comes from the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book.

“Utah’s policymakers have an opportunity to help these children by directing our state’s budgetary surpluses to provide the mental and behavioral health care that these kids need and deserve,” said Martin Muñoz, KIDS COUNT director with Voice for Utah Children. “Our kids have been struggling far too long, and the trauma of the COVID pandemic has made things even worse.”

Muñoz said that instead of spending so much money on infrastructure, he hopes the state will invest more funding on mental health issues and even on ways to encourage people to go into the profession.

“There’s a shortage of mental health professionals and we need more of them to meet the demands,” he said. “Our children are facing a big struggle in this area, particularly kids from ages 3-17. It’s getting to be at a pandemic level all its own. Right now it’s really hard to make an appointment without waiting for a long time, so we really need to open up opportunities to go into the mental health profession.”

The data shows nearly 12% of children ages 3-17 experienced anxiety and/or depression in 2020, compared to 9.4% in 2016. Figures show 7.3 million children in that age group nationwide began experiencing these mental health challenges during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of 1.5 million in just four years.

Children of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ were hit harder than their peers, according to the report. Among high school kids, 12% of Black students, 13% of two or more races, and 26% of American Indian or Native Alaskan students attempted suicide, and 23% of LGBTQ+ students attempted suicide.

“During the pandemic, kids weren’t able to go out and socialize like they normally did. That’s one factor contributing to the problem,” Muñoz said. “But our society has really changed. Everyone is connected 24/7. There’s no down time anymore. There’s constant movement and kids are just growing up too fast. They’re facing a lot of struggles and they need to be able to have that avenue available to talk with someone and help them deal with these struggles.”

The Data Book reports state and national data in 16 indicators from four domains — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. States are ranked according to how children fare overall. This year’s report shows a mix of pre-pandemic and more recent figures.

“This is definitely our first opportunity to see how this pandemic has affected our nation and our state,” Muñoz said. “I think it’s time we invest in our kids because we will all benefit. They are our future. They’re the ones who will take care of you and I when we get older. We need them to be well educated, healthy and living a life they wish to live to be their whole selves.”

For more information, go to utahchildren.org. To read the whole report, visit aecf.org/databook.

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