Haley is a first-year teacher working with children in Minneapolis. Like many teachers, not just in this state, but nationwide she has felt and seen the impact COVID-19 has had on her students' mental health.
"It’s amazing to work with these kids because it is challenging and rewarding," Haley said. "I see their signs of mental health all around me – in the form of their behaviors, words, actions, and how they communicate. I spend more time with these kids than my own family, so I know when they are feeling any type of feeling out of their usual 'box of normal.'"
Some days, she says it’s hard but understands it’s not the kids’ fault.
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health and called on policymakers to join them.
In a joint statement, they said even before the pandemic, mental health challenges facing children were of great concern and COVID-19 exacerbated them.
"We have children boarding in emergency rooms for days and weeks waiting for an inpatient bed," said Sue Abderholden, Executive Director, NAMI Minnesota. “So, the need is great. Frankly, it's getting worse."
The need is something Children’s Minnesota saw, saying in part that the shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists alone has also been a barrier to expanding mental health care for many systems, including its own.
That’s why they are opening their first inpatient mental health center in St. Paul in 2022 to support kids 18 and younger.
The facility will provide 22 private rooms that will allow parents to stay overnight with their children. This will be in conjunction with the outpatient mental health services offered by Children’s Minnesota.
“We have a long-standing history of providing exceptional care in the outpatient setting but feel a sense of responsibility to be able to meet the needs of children regardless of where they access us," said Jamie Winter, director of behavior health at Children’s Minnesota.
"Building out our mental health care continuum, which includes the introduction of our inpatient center and partial hospitalization day programs, will fulfill our vision to be every family’s essential partner in raising healthier children.”
While the inpatient center will provide a much-needed resource, Winter says the ideal situation is intervening early and connecting families with outpatient services before things escalate.
“Our hope is always to engage children and families at the earliest point possible to get them connected with outpatient care in one of our clinics. We want families to know that we’ll be available if their child needs to come to one of our emergency departments or be hospitalized for a mental health concern, but our goal is to intervene sooner so that level of care isn’t necessary,” said Winter.
Children’s Minnesota also plans on opening a second mental health day program where kids who need intensive outpatient services can go.
Experts say the pandemic may eventually recede but the mental health effects on kids will be around much longer. However, if there is any good in this, Haley says it's that the stigma about mental health is dissolving and more conversations are happening.
"I think this generation is talking about it more and therefore it is becoming more of a societal norm to discuss mental health. In addition, they are taking on the trauma of their parents and grandparents bottling in their mental health problems in the form of generational trauma,” she said.
Abderholden says when society collectively acknowledges, everyone has a role to play in addressing the mental health of children in the community. More resources can be offered to families, therefore, shifting away from the blaming narrative that it is up to one entity or person to fix the issue. She says it starts with early intervention.
“Minnesota has a program called Schooling to Mental Health and it passed back in 2007," said Abderholden. “What happens is that grant money actually goes to a community mental provider, who then co-relocates in the school, so you eliminate barriers to access for treatment for families.
"By having therapists in the school, parents don’t have to worry. There are no barriers there.”
But as America comes to grips with the pandemic, there remains some reticence to increase funding for child mental health services.
At the most recent local elections, voters in the Anoka-Hennepin School District were asked to vote on expanding a mental health academic support funded by the government and 55% voted no.
Superintendent David Law says federal funds are supporting this resource for two years, and if voters had voted yes, it would have allowed them to extend the program for ten years and beyond.
Nationwide, similar votes are happening. A recent NBC report noted that some of the parent and political groups who oppose so-called "Critical Race Theory" are now voicing opposition to suicide prevention programs, mental health coordinators and social emotional learning in schools, claiming they are being used to indoctrinate students.