We know that the recipe for a functioning society includes hard-working and motivated citizens. But how do you create such individuals? The answer must include youth who feel supported. You cannot have a population equally prepared to contribute to society without supporting their mental health through the process.  Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the mental health of our youth. Beside COVID-19, the mental health crisis is a second pandemic that our youth now face. Lawmakers must make mental health a priority.

Social isolation from extended school closures, while temporarily necessary to contain COVID-19 cases, has led to a new national disaster. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health in October 2021, over a year into the pandemic. From anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviors, eating disorders, to other functional disorders, the numbers are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, 37% of students at public and private high schools reported regular mental health struggles during the pandemic.

This mental health crisis combined with sparse options for mental and behavioral health care needs has manifested in countless ways. For example, we know that mental health disorders are one of the most significant risk factors for suicide. A recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published by the CDC noted that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts between February 21, 2021 and March 20, 2021 were 50.6% higher for girls 12-17 years old compared to the same period in 2019. In emergency departments across the country, teens are brought in daily for not only suicidal behaviors, but also self-harm and other mental health crises. Unfortunately, these patients may end up waiting there for days until a bed becomes available at an inpatient psychiatric unit.

The isolation and lack of structure during the pandemic has also triggered a rise in young people struggling with new or relapsed eating disorders. Several studies report hospitals have seen increases in eating disorders since the beginning of the pandemic, including an article in The Hospitalist noting one that’s seen a 40 percent increase. While inpatient teams are skilled at treating these patients for acute medical needs, they often require intense ongoing inpatient or semi-inpatient care. Similar to the wait times patients face in emergency departments across the country for mental health care, those battling eating disorders may also end up waiting in the hospital for weeks before they achieve placement at appropriate treatment facilities.

Expanding access to mental and behavioral health services can take many forms. Telemedicine has been monumental in providing more support for children in need of frequent therapy sessions, and increased reimbursement for such services could bolster expansion of these opportunities. Providing school counselors with mental health crisis training could be an important tool for schools to utilize when children present with these needs at school. Increased funding for child mental health clinicians to be on site at community practices would help primary care providers struggling to meet the mental health needs of their patients within time constraints for an acute visit.

Untreated or under-treated mental health-related disorders in childhood are linked to increased rates of job loss, lower income, and overall less ability to meaningfully contribute to society. Thankfully, Connecticut’s most recent legislative session focused largely on this issue with passage of three important mental health bills. One such bill, House Bill 5001, an Act Concerning Children’s Mental Health, aims to address the mental health crisis by expanding services in schools, insurance coverage, and resources for behavioral health providers among other initiatives. I urge you to watch for similar bills aiding in these initiatives, and to ask your representatives for their much-needed support. Lawmakers must continue to advocate for expansion of mental health services for our youth.

Anna Winchester DO resides in Glastonbury.