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One in four children in Rhode Island, ages three to 17, suffer from mental health issues, while a third of those have trouble getting treatment, according to the latest version of Kids Count.

The findings in the Kids Count report, issued earlier this month, reflect conditions not only in Rhode Island, but nationally and validate many organizations’ representation of a state of emergency in children’s mental health in the Ocean State.

Some school systems across the state are addressing the issue, or at least talking about it. Superintendents of Schools in some districts acknowledge the increasing challenge of finding enough behavioral health professionals for their schools.

While there is considerable attention on children’s mental health, the concerns are equally alarming for adults. 

Mental Health of America (MHA), the nation’s leading community-based non-profit dedicated to addressing and promoting overall mental health, ranks Rhode Island 39th nationally of adults with any mental illness. According to (MHA) more than 22 percent of Rhode Island adults have a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, other than a developmental or substance abuse disorder. 

Kids Count says that nearly one in four children in Rhode Island, ages three to 17, “had a mental, emotional, or behavioral health problem in Rhode Island.” And 36 percent “of children ages three to 17 who needed mental health treatment or counseling had a problem obtaining needed care.”

Several organizations, including the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Bradley and Hasbro Children’s Hospitals, have declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health in Rhode Island.

In Westerly, the school committee had a forum earlier this year, at which experts talked of the growing emotional problems among school-aged youngsters, that it was not all attributable to the pandemic, and called for a community-wide recognition of the problem.

Last week, Westerly Councilwoman Mary Scialabba hosted a mental health forum at a local church that included state mental health professionals, the town manager, a representative from a local neighborhood health organization, and the area’s state senator. 

According to Scialabba, more than 40 people attended, including several representatives from the school committee, the superintendent of schools, others in the community, but only one other town councilor.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control recently released a report (Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021), which the CDC characterized as telling “a distressing story about the health and well-being of our nation’s young people.” 

The report says that:

  • In 2021, some 42 percent of high school students suffered persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, more prevalent among female students (57 percent) than males (29 percent). (Kids Count reports that number at 38 percent in Rhode Island)
  • In 2021, some 22 percent of high school students considered suicide, again more prevalent among female students (30 percent) than males (14 percent).
  • In 2021, some 10 percent of high school students attempted suicide, with 13 percent of female students and 7 percent males. According to Kids Count nearly 10 percent of Rhode Island high school students attempted suicide. Kids Count also reported that between 2017 and 2021, 17 youths died from suicide (24 percent female, 76 percent male).

What can be done? Kids Count and the CDC suggested several action steps:

  • CDC: “Increase access to needed services by improving school-based services and connecting youth and families to community-based sources of care. Schools are the gateway to needed services for many young people. Schools can provide health, behavioral, and mental health services directly or establish referral systems to connect to community sources of care. The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted access to services for young people. Besides schools, increasing access to on-site services and referrals, training staff and teaching students how to access services will increase the likelihood that they can and will.
  • The coalition of groups that declared the state of emergency in children’s mental health, recommends:
    • Increasing state funding, including Medicaid rates, for evidence-based mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment.
    • Fully fund and prioritize comprehensive, community-based systems of care.
    • Accelerate strategies to address longstanding workforce challenges.
    • Support effective models of combining school-based mental health care with clinical strategies.
    • Support models of integrating mental health care into primary pediatric care settings.
  • Kids Count report suggests:
    • Increasing the availability of outpatient services could reduce the dependency on higher-end care by intervening prior to a mental health crisis. “Collaboration across systems connected to youth mental health needs – primary care/pediatrician offices, schools, community organizations, child welfare programs, and childcare centers – is crucial.”
    • Mental health conditions and mental wellness must be addressed throughout all stages of life, including early childhood and as youth transition to adults.

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