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EDITORIAL: Legislature needs to focus resources to stem rise in youth depression and anxiety

Olympian - 1/5/2020

Jan. 5--To do justice to the next generation, we need to do more than stave off climate change. We need to take better care of children and their mental health.

Mary Ann O'Garro, Thurston County's senior epidemiologist, has new data you need to brace yourself to read: According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey, 22 percent of local sixth-graders reported having seriously considered suicide. Seven percent of them have attempted it. That is substantially higher than just two years before.

In 2018, three children in our county committed suicide. Two of them were younger than 10.

Depression and anxiety among children and teens are epidemic: In eighth grade, 33 percent of kids report depression; 25 percent report anxiety. By their senior year in high school, those numbers rise to 44 percent and 39 percent.

One cause is clear: In 2018, 24 percent of sixth-graders and 37 percent of 10th-graders reported they had no one to talk to when they felt sad or hopeless.

Why are so many kids suffering? One reason is that their parents are struggling. About a third of local working families don't earn enough to make ends meet. They strain to pay high and rising costs of rent and child care. Wages are not rising anywhere near fast or far enough to keep pace, even with the Jan. 1 raise in minimum wage.

How can this be so when the unemployment rate is at a historic low? Scott Hanauer, the clinical director for Family Education and Support Services, says it's simple. "Sure there are lots of jobs," he says, "and parents tell me 'Yeah, I have four of them.'"

Parents also have a host of other problems that affect their children's mental health. Untreated maternal depression can prevent parent-child bonding. Parents' own experiences of abuse, neglect, and homelessness may result in lack of parenting skills. Some parents struggle with addictions and/or mental illnesses. Some parents are incarcerated, violent, or uninvolved. High rent may mean overcrowded or unstable housing, and utility shut-offs because of unpaid bills.

Discrimination plays a role too. Among kids who've considered suicide, the numbers are higher for kids who are LGBTQ, disabled, racial or ethnic minorities, and/or female.

Hanauer points out that in addition to all those sources of stress, social media and bullying also make parenting harder now than it was a generation ago.

For too many kids, it all adds up to toxic stress -- the kind of constant anxiety that keeps the fight-or-flight instinct turned on 24/7. Kids living with this kind of stress have higher cortisol and adrenaline levels. They can't sleep well, and they develop constant stomach or chest pains.

The three juvenile suicides in 2018 were a call to action by Thurston County Public Health and Social Services and others. They've launched Thurston Youth Alive to spread the word about actions anyone and everyone can take to help prevent suicides.

Family Education and Support Services offers parenting classes, help for grandparents and foster parents, and a host of other supports for troubled families. They promote focusing on both "risk factors" that affect kids and on "protective factors" such as high expectations, positive school experiences, safety, optimism, and hobbies.

Community Youth Services (CYS) is an all-purpose agency that includes mental health services and an array of programs for teens and young adults.

But these local efforts struggle for funding, and their staffs are typically underpaid. Hanauer, who used to be CEO at CYS, says that when they trained personnel in new, effective mental health treatment methods, many staff would leave for better-paying jobs in the private sector as soon as they earned certifications.

There is a labor shortage in mental health services generally, and an even more acute shortage for practitioners who serve kids. This is especially true for services funded by Medicaid, because it pays much less to providers than private insurance.

The current system of support for at-risk kids especially needs more upstream resources. Hanauer says that during his tenure at CYS, the state paid $7,000 a month for therapeutic crisis foster care for kids who've been through 12 or more placements. "But we know which kids in preschool or kindergarten are struggling. We need to support families with risk factors much earlier."

That's a challenge for the coming legislative session. In fact, it's been a challenge for every legislative session in living memory, and likely will be for many more years.

An even bigger challenge is the need to make broader, deeper changes to reduce the toxic stress for parents and children caused by low wages, discrimination, and the lack of affordable housing and child care.

The acute distress of many kids is not new, but the data show it's getting worse, especially among younger kids.

This is as frightening a trend as climate change. And there's no point taking care of the planet kids will live on if we don't take care of the kids too.

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