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EDITORIAL: Focus on youth mental health or face unimaginable costs

Seattle Times - 12/7/2023

Dec. 7—Despite its progressive politics, Washington has been a persistent outlier in its lagging mental health services for youth in crisis. That long-smoldering problem is now a five-alarm blaze.

A paper recently issued by the nonprofit Children's Alliance lays out the picture in detail. Rates of anxiety and depression reported by adolescents in Washington spiked by 16 percentage points between 2014 and 2021, and nearly 20% of those kids — about 114,000 young people — now have symptoms severe enough to require clinical care. About 9% said they had attempted suicide. Yet most are not getting treatment.

After years of ignoring this crisis, state lawmakers have begun to confront it. In 2022, the Legislature allocated $600 million to hire more school counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists. Overall spending on mental health services in Washington exceeds $1 billion.

Nevertheless, the state ranks 39th for access to care for kids. A major part of the problem is lack of providers, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Eighteen of Washington's 39 counties do not have a single practicing psychiatrist. Kids who need hospitalization can wait months for an available bed.

The good news is that, finally, a broad swath of adults appears to appreciate the problem.

"I reach out to school superintendents periodically to ask about the biggest issues in their community," said Stephan Blanford, a former Seattle school board director who now heads the Children's Alliance. "This year is the first that those conversations are not about money. They're saying, 'You've got to help us figure out how to keep a kid from committing suicide in our classrooms or bringing in a gun and shooting up the school.'"

School administrators are not a group given to hyperbole. And they are frightened. Last month a column in The Seattle Times described a seventh grader who told her teacher that she felt suicidal before beating the educator badly enough to require a trip to the ER in an ambulance.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction criticized the piece as sensational. But it portrayed daily reality for thousands of people working in schools. An anti-violence trainer in the Highline district said one boy confided that he wanted to shoot up the building and was frustrated that no one seemed to believe him.

The Children's Alliance believes Washington could address most of its gaps in care for about $25 million — less than $40 per kid — through a combination of group therapy, telemedicine and short-term interventions. It's triage, but better than nothing.

Voters are surely weary of tax hikes to fund everything from arts to housing to behavioral health. But as the report's authors note, if a child fractured an arm, letting them languish without treatment would be inconceivable.

As state legislators prepare for their upcoming session in January, youth mental health must be at the forefront of the agenda. The risks of widespread harm are too great for a Band-Aid approach.

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