February 17, 2022
After graduating high school last spring, Meril Mousoom spent most of the summer quarantined in their parents’ home in Queens–the same place they’d also camped out during the remote classes that dominated the second half of their high school experience.
That summer, Mousoom was overwhelmed with suspense. After two years in quarantine, going away to college in Minnesota felt more significant, and more uncertain.
“Because we’re so young, COVID has just been like the biggest thing that we are seeing,” said Mousoom, who is 18 years old. “For us, it’s like the most defining moment of our lives.”
Like many others dealing with the pandemic’s mental health repercussions, Mousoom needed extra help. But they couldn’t find consistent, reliable behavioral health resources they could depend on.
Instead, Mousoom has had to cope with the panic disorder they developed that summer––in addition to pre-existing anxiety, depression and ADHD—mostly on their own.
Youth across the city, state and country have experienced an uptick in mental health concerns in recent years. Amanda Fialk, a partner and chief clinical officer at a Manhattan-based mental health clinic for youth called The Dorm, said she’s seen a 40 percent increase in youth anxiety since the start of the pandemic.
“Youth do not have access to timely, coordinated, and quality mental health care, which is tragic, as consistent and accessible care can transform the life of a young person struggling with mental illness,” Fialk said.
Prior to the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability among youth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationwide, one out of every five children between ages 3 and 17 suffered a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder. In the decade before COVID struck, feelings of sadness among youth increased 40 percent while suicidal behaviors increased 57 percent. As the pandemic exacerbated the conditions leading to these rates, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about the crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their [youth] mental health has been devastating,” Surgeon General Dr. Viveck Murphy said in the December advisory. “The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”
In her proposed $216.3 billion state budget for the upcoming fiscal year––which is over $4 billion larger than last year’s record breaking budget––Gov. Kathy Hochul plans to invest $53 million for children’s mental health services. Funds will be used to integrate behavioral health services into pediatric primary care, align Child Health Plus Benefits with Medicaid and provide more home-based crisis intervention. The governor also proposes bonuses for behavioral health workers as part of a plan to grow the workforce by 20 percent over five years. Additionally, the budget will invest in schools, with the opportunity for some of that money to go towards the expansion of school-based mental health resources.
The governor and state lawmakers will hammer out the final plan in the coming months, ahead of the state’s April 1 budget deadline. Despite the record spending in Hochul’s executive proposal, some youth leaders and advocates say addressing the root causes of the youth mental health crisis requires going further, due to a deficit created by chronic underinvestment.
“While we’re taking really important steps forward with Governor Hochul, there’s also such a great need,” said Alice Bufkin, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at Citizens Committee for Children (disclosure: CCC is a City Limits’ funder). “This is a system that has been chronically underfunded for years and years and years. We’re essentially starting at a deficit that is very large in terms of where we are investing in children and where we need.”