SEATTLE (TND) — Throughout this year, Spotlight on America has been highlighting a crisis among our children: As their mental health needs have soared, the resources to help them have failed to keep up, especially in schools. This year, Congress took strong action to place more mental health services in the classroom, but is it enough to ease a national emergency among our kids?
Stephanie Simpson says parents know the drill when it comes to many safety issues for their kids.
"We put kids in car seats, we talk about drunk driving at prom time," Simpson told us. "But we're not willing to talk about the second leading cause of death."
She's talking about suicide, the second leading cause of death among youth, and the statistics are stunning.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts about suicide and 9% report a suicide attempt.
Stephanie Simpson knows the pain well. She rushed her child to the ER for suicidal thoughts at the age of just nine, as he grappled with a severe case of OCD. Simpson was forced to lock her knives and medications away in a safe to ensure her child wouldn't harm himself, telling us that as just a third grader, "he was completely debilitated."
Simpson did whatever she could to help him, facing months of confusion, extreme wait lists, and eventually moving her husband and son out of state because it was the only place to get him the extensive treatment he needed. They lived in a hotel for a month so that her son could get treatment five days a week.
"In that hotel room, that's where they learned for him to be able to sleep through the night, to brush his teeth, to eat again, to take a shower because all of those, he was too terrified to do," she told us.
Stephanie's son is one of the millions of children in this country currently battling devastating mental health challenges, in what leading public health groups are calling a national emergency. For many families like Stephanie's, the resources they desperately need aren't available.
According to the CDC, only one in five kids with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders are receiving care from a specialized mental health care provider. The agency acknowledges, "Some families cannot find mental health care because of the lack of providers in their area. Some families may have to travel long distances or be placed on long waiting lists to receive care."
Those are deeply troubling facts that have captured the attention of Congress, including Washington Representative Kim Schrier (D-WA), one of only two female physicians in Congress. She told us she's been concerned about mental health among children from 20 years.
"We just don't have enough counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists to treat the degree of mental illness that we're seeing in our kids right now," Rep. Schrier told Spotlight on America. "If we value our children, as I do, then this should get abundant funding because we have a crisis on our hands.
Rep. Schrier wanted to know what was really happening on the ground, so she called the psychologist at her child's school.
"She rattled off, 'We're seeing more kids with eating disorders, depressions and anxiety,'" said Schrier.
Alarmed by what she heard, Schrier teamed up with the other female physician in Congress, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) on a bill to boost behavioral spending in schools. Their bill secured $300 million for mental health support in education, and it was folded into the $1 billion school funding in the bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill signed by President Biden. To see how the funding breaks down, click here.
The goal is to bring more staffing into schools for kids in crisis. As Spotlight on America first reported earlier this year, the need is dire for school psychologists alone. The National Association of School Psychologists, or NASP, recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students.
The worst state ratios according to NASP:
A big question remains - does funding solve the immediate problem?
The answer, according to Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is complicated.
While the funding represents a ten-fold increase from past investments, she told us, the need that currently exists is "unprecedented."
She told Spotlight on America that innovative ideas may be needed to scale up the workforce in the short term, and it may require training non-professionals to deal with mental health issues.
"I think we also need to consider other para-professionals who can fill that gap," Wesolowski said. "How can we use our school nurses? How can we provide better training to all school personnel? All teachers and school personnel should receive more training to be aware."
She also told us that loan forgiveness and repayment may help increase the potential workforce.
We asked her what's at stake as time passes without resources. Her answer was simple: "Lives are at stake."
Mom Stephanie Simpson knows what's on the line.
Fortunately, her son is now stable, though he will require continuous care. For Simpson, it's not just about money and resources, but also about awareness, and removing the stigma of talking about mental health within families and communities.
"People are really fearful of talking about mental health," she told us. "Mental health is a health issue. It's life or death."
For resources on coping with mental health crises in children, as well as strategies for parents, including a tip-line for support, and a hotline for suicidal thoughts, visit NAMI's website. You can view Spotlight on America's prior investigation into this topic here.