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Missouri kids are in a mental health crisis. This bill would offer badly needed help | Opinion

Kansas City Star - 4/14/2024

In the United States, youth mental health has only gotten worse. In Missouri, it is a crisis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in every 3 high school students reported poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC also reports that suicide is now the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-19.

In Missouri, Children’s Mercy Kansas City reports seeing an average of 24 children each day for mental or behavioral health emergencies. According to data from the federal Health Resources and Service Administration, 110 of Missouri’s 114 counties are designated as mental health professional shortage areas, including every county in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

These numbers should shock us, outrage us and concern us deeply.

Parents, teachers, doctors and mental health professionals are under-resourced and unprepared to deal with this sudden influx of mental health concerns. Children and teens in Missouri desperately need solutions.

Fortunately, school-based mental health interventions show promise as an effective way to support both children and families.

As a former Missouri K-12 student, it was surprising to me when I discovered that many schools across the nation are already utilizing licensed mental health professionals to provide school-based therapy, support groups and resources for families. This was not an opportunity that I had available to me as I navigated the transition from childhood to adolescence. However, it would have benefited me and many of my peers greatly.

Currently, many schools are forced to rely on school counselors, nurses, teachers and administrators to fill in gaps related to mental health and social and emotional learning, despite many of them receiving little training or support. This situation only exacerbates burnout among school professionals and fails to provide students with the foundation they need to be successful as adults.

It is time to put concerted effort into integrating mental health into school settings and a bill introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives offers just the path to do so. House Bill 2858 was introduced in February by state Rep. Yolanda Young of Jackson County’s District 22. The bill would allow any Missouri public school to apply to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for a state financial supplement to pay for a school mental health professional. The department would have the discretion to offer funding to schools with the greatest need. Those would be defined as schools that have a mental health professional-to-student ratio above the recommendation made by the department, schools with a high percentage of students receiving Title 1 funding, and schools with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

This is a straightforward approach targeting the most disadvantaged communities and school districts in Missouri, many of which cannot afford to pay for mental health professionals themselves. The bill would promote students’ access to mental health care and reduce the burden that families, school employees and medical professionals face trying to meet the ever-increasing need for childhood mental health care.

I have always found that one of the greatest strengths of my hometown Kansas City is that people care deeply about their families and children. It is time to extend that care to all children across the state and meet their mental health needs with both compassion and action.

Emma Kenney is a graduate student of social work with a specialization in strengthening children, youth and families. She lives in Berkeley, California, and works in a community mental health clinic.

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