Amid growing crisis, federal officials are calling on states to prioritize youth mental health

Amid an astonishing rise in mental health problems among young people, six state agencies on Wednesday called on states to make greater use of federal funding so they can prioritize the well-being of children.

In a joint letter, first shared with NBC News, federal agency leaders called the issue a “national youth mental health crisis” and encouraged states to carefully plan how to use block grants, Medicaid state plans, waivers and other resources. that come from multiple federal agencies so that they run without duplication.

The Department of Health and Human Services plan also suggested ways for states to expand mental health services for children. It was signed by leaders of six HHS agencies: the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Administration for Society.

Anxiety and depression among children were already on the rise before the pandemic, and they were exacerbated by things like lockdowns, school closures and social isolation, experts say. Data shows that from 2016 to 2020, the number of children aged 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent, while the number of children diagnosed with depression grew by 27 percent; from 2019 to 2020, the number of children with behavioral or behavioral problems has increased by 21 percent.

Wednesday’s letter does not imply that more money will be allocated to address the problem on top of funds previously invested by the Biden administration. Instead, it provides support for states, tribes and jurisdictions to maximize existing federal funding flows as part of the “government-wide” mental health strategy outlined by President Joe Biden in his State of the Union address to transform mental health services.

As an example of ways to coordinate, it cited the development of a state-wide children’s mental health task force that would collect data from several federally funded programs, including early childhood programs, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. and others, has set out to find gaps where states should expand screening and treatment.

Addressing mental health is a top goal of the Biden administration and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is on a national tour to hear from Americans about the challenges they face.

“At HHS, I have called on our leaders across the Department to work together and use every leverage available to support President Biden’s call to strengthen the mental health of Americans,” Becerra said in a press release. “Today we call on our state, tribal and community partners to do the same, especially for our little ones.”

The plan comes at a time when there is an increase in children and adolescents in need of care but far too few staff members to help them, said Ariste Sallas-Brookwell, a licensed clinical social worker who is the director of behavioral health integration at Mary’s Center. , a community health center serving nearly 60,000 people of all ages throughout the Washington DC metro area. Mary’s Center is a grant recipient of Health Resources and Services Administration.

“There is a significant gap between the number of providers we have to provide services to children and the need, the demand we see for those services,” Sallas-Brookwell said.

The pandemic is exacerbating children’s problems, she added.

“We’ve seen an increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm,” she said. “We know that parents and carers were much more stressed because they didn’t have the same childcare or family support. They came under financial pressure. All those things affect children.”

In exclusive interviews before HHS’s plan was released, two federal agency leaders who signed the letter expressed optimism that it would align well with efforts already underway by the Biden administration.

For example, the budget request for fiscal year 2023 would make a “significant commitment” to train more behaviorists, said Carole Johnson, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Her hope is that the HHS plan will reveal to states that there are multiple ways to use federal grants to get more mental health services for children.

“We think there’s a lot of opportunity here and we want to work with our state partners to identify those opportunities,” she said.

Jan Contreras, the deputy secretary of the Children’s and Families Administration, described the plan as “breaking silos” between agencies.

“The value we share is that mental health is just as important for young people as physical health,” she said.

In addition to building the workforce so that there is greater access to mental health care for children, Contreras said she hoped the plan would make mental health care more equitable for young people. The workforce should be boosted “in a culturally competent and multilingual and geographically diverse manner,” she said.

Contreras, Johnson and several other letter signers will hold a roundtable Wednesday afternoon with people who provide mental health services to hear about their experiences providing care and identify opportunities for collaboration.

It is incredibly important that we invest in programs that support children and adolescents so that we can prevent worse outcomes.”

Sallas-Brookwell, who will sit at the roundtable, said the staff shortage in her industry is one of the most pressing priorities to address to help children.

“If we can intervene early in life, we can often prevent more serious diseases later in life,” she said. “It is incredibly important that we invest in programs that support children and adolescents so that we avoid worse outcomes.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME at 741741, or visit for additional resources.

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