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4 things our leaders can do for kids’ mental health

Written by Michelle Hughes and originally published on NC Child.

Content Warning: Loss of a parent, suicide, suicidal ideation

Parents and policy-makers alike are struggling to support our children’s mental health. Citing staggering data about the rise in emergency department visits for children and youth experiencing mental health issues, as well as rising rates of suicide and self-harm, clinicians are sounding the alarm. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a “National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.” These trends are not new, but they have jumped sharply as a result of the instability, social isolation, illness, and loss of life caused by the pandemic over the last two years. More than 3,600 children in North Carolina have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID.

An unprecedented 56 children died by suicide in North Carolina in 2020, according to the latest data from the Child Fatality Task Force. This is a time for our policy-makers to sit up and take notice. The stigma of mental illness often means that we tend to see mental health as an individual-level problem. What we have all been through together over the last two years, however, is not a bunch of individual problems, but a whole generation of children and youth collectively experiencing severe trauma.

So much of what our elected leaders do can support – or hinder – our children’s mental health and their response to trauma. We need to rise to this challenge and make sure kids have what they need to survive this moment and thrive in the future.

Inequity matters.

The impacts of this mental health crisis are being borne to a much greater extent by Black and Brown children and LGBTQ+ youth. Racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and their effects are deeply harmful to children’s mental health. The most recent data we have are from 2019, when nearly one in 10 Black high school students reported attempting suicide. The rates for Latinx students were even higher – one in six, more than double the rate of white students. Lesbian, gay, or bisexual students were more than three times as likely to attempt suicide.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support. Or text “CONNECT” to 741741.

Kids need us to act to address this mental health emergency.

Here are five things policy-makers can do right now to improve mental health for North Carolina’s children and youth:

  1. Bring services to kids with school-based mental health supports. We need to meet kids where they are. Schools need social workers, counselors and other health and mental health staff in the building. State legislators should invest in fully funding the need for these positions in our schools in the state budget this year. Local school leaders should look to innovative programs that bring health care into school buildings, such as the WISH program in Wayne County, NC.

  2. Meet basic needs like health care so kids and families don’t have to struggle. When parents don’t have to worry about paying rent, putting food on the table, or affording their own mental health care, they can focus on being there for their kids. Extending the Child Tax Credit and expanding Medicaid are two powerful ways our elected officials can ease the burden on families right now.

  3. Make mental health expertise widely available to pediatricians. On-staff social workers and programs like NC PAL’s pediatrician hotline help doctors identify evidence-based treatments for kids who are struggling.

  4. Appropriately reimburse doctors who serve kids on Medicaid. Because doctors who serve kids on Medicaid are reimbursed below market rate, parents can have a hard time finding providers who can help them. Raising rates helps families access care, especially now, when finding a clinician is a challenge for everyone. 

The scope of this mental health crisis should be a call to urgent action. Our elected leaders must prioritize programs that meet families’ basic needs and increase the availability of mental health services to North Carolina’s children. With that support, parents, teachers, and clinicians can help our kids get through this deeply challenging time and even come out stronger.


Founded in 2014, NC Child works to eliminate the barriers that stand in kids’ way. NC Child is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that advances public policies to ensure that every child in North Carolina has the opportunity to thrive – whatever their race, ethnicity, or place of birth.

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