About a month ago, I had brunch with a longtime friend and her husband, who teaches kindergarten, in suburban Maryland. We caught up on all the things friends do at brunch, but one story he told has stuck with me all these days later. He told me about an incident that happened recently at his school after the recess bell when two small kids came in and did not realize their masks had fallen off when they were outside playing. When he mentioned they didn’t have their masks on the kids froze. Then they burst into tears. They did not know what to do. They didn’t want to disappoint their teachers, their parents, or their friends. They were scared. These kids were five years old, yet they have spent their first two years of ‘school’ masked – they didn’t really know how to go about school without a mask, he said.

Last September, a youth mental health national emergency was declared, and according to a new CDC report released last week, one in five teens have contemplated suicide during the pandemic and 45% of students said they felt sad and hopeless. This is a sharp increase up from pre-pandemic levels.

Last week a U.S. House Committee brought the issue to light with a hearing on mental health legislation. During the hearing, Steven Adelsheim, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, Stanford University School of Medicine, said there was a pediatric mental challenge before the pandemic but now there is a national crisis. He said that half of all mental health problems start by the age of fourteen.

Our country does not have anywhere near the adequate mental health services we need to meet the basic needs of our youth. Dr. Adelsheim said we’ve known that mental health starts young for a long time, yet time and time again we’ve failed to properly invest in preventative resources and measures our kids so desperately need.

We see this problem at home in North Dakota, and across rural America. In comparison to urban areas, rural counties have far less mental-health professionals, which often makes it difficult for residents to access the mental-health services they need. According to the NIH, only 3% of rural areas had a mental health facility that offered suicide prevention services for youths. This is compared to 8% of metropolitan areas, 9% of micropolitan areas, and 12% of small towns.  According to the 2021 North Dakota Youth Risk Behavior Survey (NDYRBS), 28.7 percent of high school students in North Dakota reported their mental health was not good on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey, and the percentage of students who have seriously considered attempting suicide has increased from 12.4 percent in 2009 to 18.6 percent in 2021.

YouthWorks, an organization working to help homeless, runaway, trafficked and struggling youth throughout North Dakota, is paving the way in helping young people in our community who are in dire need of key mental health assistance. The organization has four shelters throughout North Dakota that provide services and emergency housing for more than 1,000 children and young adults each year.

Youthworks’ success illustrates the fact that this problem on our hands is not insurmountable. Teachers, parents and families will continue to wrestle with the aftereffects of pandemic masking in schools and public spaces on children for the foreseeable future.  Trauma caused by a host of issues is not new to kids and teens. While this isn’t a column about the policy on school masks or the enforcement of wearing them properly, I hope it’s a wake-up call for those of us that have kids in our lives to open our eyes and offer our help. We have a problem on our hands that isn’t going to disappear without us facing it head on and investing in the mental health of our children.

Tessa Gould
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