New Agenda to Support and Improve Children’s Mental Health

January 28, 2021

Today, Child Trends released an ambitious agenda to support and improve the mental health of children across the United States both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. In A National Agenda for Children’s Mental Health, Child Trends mental health expert Jessica Dym Bartlett and school health expert Brandon Stratford propose five strategies that, if adopted and funded, would improve the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of the nation’s children, youth, and families.

“Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, a number that does not include the scores of children who go undiagnosed due to lack of healthcare and other systemic challenges,” said Bartlett. “The strategies we propose would not only help children get treatment, but also call on policymakers and other mental health leaders to address the root causes of mental health disorders, particularly poverty and racism, and prevent children from needing treatment in the first place.”

The mental health system faces serious systemic challenges in delivering care to children, especially children in who live in communities of concentrated poverty and geographic isolation, and who face systemic discrimination and structural barriers. Current approaches to children’s mental health tend to focus on treatment instead of prevention and promotion of mental wellness. Insufficient investment in programs that support mental health and a chronic shortage of mental health providers also challenge our nation’s ability to promote the mental wellness of its children.

The agenda lays out five strategies federal, tribal, state, and local policymakers and leaders can use to establish and maintain a national children’s mental health support system:

  1. Establish systems that allow children’s mental health to be coordinated across multiple sectors that are currently fragmented and isolated, including health care, child welfare, home visiting, child care, education, and the legal system.
  2. Develop more flexible and equitable funding streams to expand access to mental health services, including preventive services and services that promote children’s psychological well-being.
  3. Establish a national, cross-disciplinary education and training initiative to increase the number of professionals who both work with children and youth and are trained to promote and improve their mental health during and after the pandemic.
  4. Invest in innovative technology that can increase access to mental health care for children, youth, and their families, particularly telehealth services and other virtual interventions.
  5. Reduce family poverty, which contributes to and exacerbates conditions that negatively affect mental health, especially among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who experience inequities in housing, healthcare, education, and law enforcement due to racism.

“The pandemic’s health and economic impacts have made it clear that we as a nation must invest more in promoting the mental health of our children and youth,” said Stratford. “To do this, will we have to face hard truths about our nation’s history of systemic discrimination and racism, which have led to longstanding inequities in access to mental health. The good news is that we have compelling examples from communities across the country that can guide us as we invest in building a national system for promoting mental wellness.”