Democrat and Chronicle: Now is the time to address New York’s child mental health crisis


March 28, 2022

By Sara Taylor

Watching your 13-year old child struggle with anxiety and depression is heart-breaking for any parent. Even before the pandemic, our family spent hours running from numerous mental health appointments to psychiatric emergency rooms, trying desperately to get my daughter the help she needed. Unfortunately, like countless children across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on my child’s mental health.

Sadly, she is not alone. In New York State and across the country, a growing number of families are grappling with a severe and worsening child mental health crisis. At the end of last year, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory to “highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis” as rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation in children soared. During his first State of the Union Address, President Biden called attention to the crisis, saying the pandemic has turned the lives and education of children “upside down.”

Our children’s mental health is a matter of life and death. If New York doesn’t step up now to invest in proven prevention treatments and expand access to critical behavioral health services for children, more young lives will be lost. Our children, especially children of color, urgently need access to high-quality behavioral health care to overcome the compounding trauma from the pandemic, social isolation and ongoing economic devastation.

Even before the pandemic, roughly half of children with a behavioral health condition did not receive treatment or counseling, and mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people. Additionally, suicidal behaviors among high school students rose from 2009 to 2019, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide.

Today, 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or caregiver to the coronavirus – and almost 7,000 of them are in New York.

These worsening challenges have been met with even longer wait times for care and an urgent need to hire more care workers. The consequences have been disastrous – especially for parents like myself.

Rochester, where I currently live, is among 13 cities in the country with both high COVID-19 infection rates and extremely limited access to behavioral health services. As an advocate and a mother, I see too many parents in our community suffering in silence – either because they lack access to adequate mental health care or do not trust the health care system.

This crisis is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and families of color. For too long, Black and brown children and families have faced greater barriers to care due to long-standing inequities and systemic racism embedded in our healthcare system. Countless parents of color like me worry that their child will be criminalized or placed in the child welfare system because they cannot access the mental health services they need. Too often, our children become involved in the child welfare system or criminal legal system when what they really need are support systems embedded within their communities to address – not reinforce – the compounding cycle trauma.

New York state legislators have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the state’s child mental health care system. In her executive budget proposal, Governor Hochul made child mental healthcare a clear priority. By committing to invest in the healthcare workforce – including rate increases for behavioral health services, a much-needed 5.4% cost-of-living adjustments for human services workers, and $200 million to support community health workforce retention – the governor’s budget takes critically important steps towards addressing barriers to accessing behavioral health services.

As the Governor and the legislature work to finalize the budget ahead of April 1, it is imperative that lawmakers sustain the Governor’s proposed investments in rate increases and build on the Governor’s proposed cost-of-living adjustments for human service workers. I also urge legislators to ensure our community-based workers receive proposed bonuses just like state workers and support Senate proposals to strengthen reporting and transparency on managed care plans.

Additionally, elected leaders should support funding for Family Support Services in the budget and establish a tax credit for direct care staff working with individuals with developmental disabilities or a behavioral health diagnosis (A.9200/ S.7643). Finally, State leaders should address the October rate cliff facing Children and Family Treatment and Support Services in October and ensure these and other services receive the government rate so they can be sustainable and reach more children.

For the sake of my daughter and all the children suffering in my community and across the state, I ask our state legislators to listen to families. For too long, our children have not been a priority in Albany.

We can change this. Together, we can chart a new course for the next generation of New York children. By prioritizing the mental health of children like mine – and by making real investments in our child mental health care system – we would build a better and brighter New York.

Sara I. Taylor is the founder and director of BIPOC PEEEEEEK Parent Mental Health project in Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse focused on addressing mental health disparities in communities of color (www.bipocparentvoice.org).

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