December 13, 2021

Leaders Call a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association recently declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have been calling attention to a growing mental health crisis among children, youth and young adults over the last decade. Trends on youth suicide, depression and anxiety have been going in the wrong direction for many years and, tragically, the pandemic has accelerated this crisis and exacerbated inequities for children of color and LGBTQ youth.

Youth Mental Health Trends Before the Pandemic

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Mental Health America, the mental health of young people was a concern prior to the pandemic's start:

  • The share of youth ages 12 to 17 reporting a major depressive episode in the previous year doubled between 2009 and 2019.
  • The rate of hospital emergency room visits for children’s deliberate self-harm rose by 329% from 2007 to 2016.
  • Youth suicide rates consistently increased over the past decade and by 2018, suicide became (and still is) the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24. Children of color have been more likely to attempt suicide than white youth, and concerning increases in suicide attempts and deaths had been documented for African American youth.
  • LGBTQ youth were three times more likely to report seriously considering suicide than their heterosexual peers.
  • Most children who need mental health care do not receive it, but children of color consistently have been less likely than white youth to receive treatment for mental health issues.

Further, according the KIDS COUNT Data Center, the share of U.S. high school students reporting persistent sadness or hopelessness increased over the past decade, from 26% in 2009 to 37% in 2019. In California, this figure reached nearly half of high school students in 2019. In a similarly troubling trend, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 reporting zero poor mental health days had been declining prior to the pandemic, with only 46% reporting no poor mental health days in the past month by 2017-2019.

The Youth Mental Health Crisis Now

New data from numerous sources are pointing to the same fact: The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already grim mental crisis among America’s youth. A few recent findings:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, emergency room visits for mental health reasons increased by 24% for ages 5 to 11 and by 31% for ages 12 to 17.
  • Mental Health America (MHA) reports a 628% increase from 2019 to 2020 in youth ages 11-17 taking their online mental health screening assessment. MHA also reports continued inequities, with the highest rates of depression among youth identifying as Native American or American Indian and those identifying as multiracial. In addition, MHA reports that thoughts of suicide or self-harm were especially high among LGBTQ youth in 2020.
  • According to a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation report, more than one in four high school students reported that their emotional health worsened during the pandemic, and more than one in five parents with kids ages 5 to 12 reported that their children’s mental or emotional health worsened during the pandemic.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation also shared that, during the pandemic, nearly three in four LGBTQ teens ages 13 to 17 reported symptoms of anxiety, two in three reported symptoms of depression and about half have had thoughts of suicide.
  • A national Harvard Youth Poll found that in Fall 2021, among all young adults age 18 to 24, one in four (26%) had thoughts of self-harm at least several days in the last two weeks.

Additionally, the KIDS COUNT Data Center recently added new data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey on young adult mental health. These data revealed that, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 11, 2021, young people ages 18 to 24 reported the following feelings for nearly every day or more than half the days in the past two weeks:

The mental health of parents and adults living with children also can have a profound impact on young people. Children and youth need stable, nurturing family relationships and environments in order to thrive. The same Household Pulse Survey found that from July 21 to Oct. 11, 2021, about one in five adults in households with children under 18 reported that they felt down, depressed or hopeless—and nearly one in three (30%) felt nervous, anxious or on edge—for nearly every day or more than half the days in the past two weeks. It is essential that efforts to improve children’s emotional health also support the mental health of parents and caregivers.

Time for Action on Youth Mental Health

Millions of children and youth have been suffering for too long, and inequities in mental health conditions and access to care must be addressed. It is time to elevate the priority and urgency of youth mental health at the national, state and local levels. Thankfully, this critical issue has gained new national attention, with the recent declaration of a state of emergency by leading health organizations, as well as recent reports from the White House, U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The following resources outline a range of action steps that can be taken now by policymakers, education leaders and educators, service providers, administrators, funders, advocates, families, youth and others. At minimum, it will require multiple sectors giving this issue higher priority, backing it up with adequate funding, policy and infrastructure, improving collaboration across organizations and sectors, increasing mental health services and supports, especially at schools, and focusing on equity and youth empowerment at every step.

Learn More & Stay Connected

See all mental health data on the KIDS COUNT Data Center and read about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s focus on supporting youth and youth adults, including their mental health, in the Thrive by 25 announcement. Stay up to date on the latest data and information by signing up for our newsletter.