Authored by: First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray
Ms. Blake’s fourth-grade classroom at P.S. 121 in the Bronx was brimming with excited chatter on the first day of school when I stopped by with greetings. Ms. Blake was handing out motivational quotes to students and guests to start the day on a positive note. One quote read: “A beautiful day begins with a beautiful mindset” — a perfect sentiment for a time filled with both challenges and heartbreak, and compassion and kindness.
While our children do not understand every aspect of the pandemic, they feel it intensely. Illness and death, isolation, lost jobs, and shuttered schools have taken a toll on everyone, including young people. Emergency room visits for suicide attempts by those ages 12 to 17 increased 39.1 percent in the winter of 2021 compared to the winter of 2019, according to the CDC. It has been widely reported that anywhere from 1 to 3 million children were lost by schools nationwide during the pandemic. Those children did not show up for school, they did not log in online, they did not enroll.
As a mental health advocate, a mother, and the First Lady of New York City I view this once-in-a lifetime pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase attention to mental fitness and to improve access to mental health and substance misuse services. That is especially important for the youngest among us, who will spend a larger proportion of their lives dealing with the pandemic fallout.
I urge everyone to think big about baking mental fitness into every aspect of our children’s lives, in the same way we pay attention to their physical fitness. We can start with schools, in particular with school curriculums for social-emotional learning (SEL) a proven educational approach used in schools nationwide, including New York City. Students learn to identify their emotions, manage feelings, build relationships, and resolve conflicts. It is a common-sense proposition that children cannot learn if they are anxious or traumatized.
Here in the nation’s largest school district, home to over 1 million students, we have rolled out a historic expansion of services for students and families. It is the robust menu needed, in some degree, in every single school in the country. We are hiring new social workers, as well as psychologists and other support staff. Starting this fall, we will offer universal social-emotional screening to check in on how students are handling trauma, stress, and other challenges. And if help is needed, every student will have access to a social worker or school-based mental health clinic. We will continue educating parents about mental health, too. For many families, schools are at the center of their communities, a hub of support and information.
In early September, The JAMA Network Open featured a survey-study of the association between school closures and child mental health during COVID-19. That study suggested that older and Black and Hispanic children, as well as those from low-income families who learned remotely, may experience greater mental health impairment than their whiter, younger, and higher-income counterparts.
But even before Covid-19, too many of our children were in trouble, and children from BIPOC communities are of special concern.
As of 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death in Black children aged 10 to 14, and Black children under 12 kill themselves at twice the rate of white children. Studies suggest that Latina adolescents attempt suicide at higher rates than Black or white adolescents.
When support for mental health challenges or substance misuse is sought, members of BIPOC communities often find themselves in a federally designated mental health desert –and/or they just can’t find someone culturally competent to talk to. I am a big advocate of community-based organizations and Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, that provide mental health services as part of a broader health program. We can also do more to train staff in community-based organizations to help identify those in need and provide low level support.
Encouragingly, the House this spring passed the Mental Health Services for Students Act. Let’s keep pushing legislators to support passage in the Senate. The act provides $130 million in competitive grants of up to $2 million each to expand the Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education program, which supports school-based mental health services.
Policy prescriptions and additional school supports only go so far, though. As schools and businesses re-open amid raging debates over mandates, masking, and vaccines, we should also think more deeply about how to improve our own mental fitness and the mental fitness of loved ones. How can we better support ourselves and those in our lives? How has this pandemic clarified our values and priorities? How are we talking to the young people in our lives about Covid-19? The answers, like the questions, are as individual as we are. Now is the time to ask and to answer those questions and so many more.