American kids are struggling — and they’re asking adults for help

By Petula Dvorak  Washington Post Apri 1st 2022

The kids have been saying itthroughout the pandemic: They’re not okay.

“I was going through a rough phase with friends and had lost a loved one,” said Elizabeth Abatan, a high school senior in D.C. who wants to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“I fell behind in my school work and started to lose interest in school,” said Daniela Mendez Castro, a D.C. 16-year-old who wants to be a pediatrician.

“High school students are in a mental health crisis,” said Julissa Canales, another D.C. 16-year-old. She wants to be a therapist.

But these very D.C. teens on Monday weren’t posting on social media or complaining to their friends. They had gone to a virtual D.C. Council budget hearing, sitting before a government body, to ask for help.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nearly all the students who spoke or submitted testimony want to do the work — taking care of others — that the adults aren’t doing well today.

“Students are taking the lead on addressing mental health,” Alynah King, a student at Wilson High School, saidat the hearing. “Not the adults.”

For teens whose home lives are already tough, staying home can be devastating

A few days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that confirmed to Americans what they had known all along in their classrooms, at their dinner tables and in their heads: Our children are in serious trouble. In the grips of the pandemic last year, 1 out of every 5 American teens that the CDC spoke to had considered suicide. Forty percent said they felt “persistently sad or hopeless.”

“These data echo a cry for help,” said Debra Houry, a deputy director at the CDC. “The covid-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being.”

It’s “a national emergency,” the American Academy of Pediatrics declared last fall.

That’s what the kids in D.C. said on Monday, too, in the middle of an annual budget process for the public school system that had nearly 250 witnesses submitting testimony on behalf of their passion, their profession or their pet projects: more baseball fields, a food-education program, fixing thefilthy bathrooms in one of the biggest high schools in the city.

And students from across the city who work with the Young Women’s Project, a nonprofit that helps kids find power in their voices, wrote impassioned arguments for more robust and effective mental health programs in all D.C. schools.

“My school doesn’t provide many mental health resources and does not share much information about what they do have,” said Noemie Durand, 17, a junior at BASIS. “It’s baffling and incredibly frustrating that the current health and school systems create so many obstacles to receiving that help.”

Durand said she, like many of her peers, suffered during the pandemic.

“The combination of stress from school, isolation from friends, and an extremely toxic relationship and eventual breakup led to destructive burnout and situational depression for most of my 10th-grade year,” she said. But she has parents with the money and means to get her help. Therapy pulled her out of her depression, she said. When she returned to school, she saw the same issues in peers all around her who didn’t know how to get help.

No surprise: She wants to study psychology.

She’ll have no trouble finding work — there’s a startling shortage of mental health workers in America right now. And that doesn’t bode well for the plan that D.C. Public Schools proposed to help students.

The proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year is big, up to $2.2 billion from last year’s $2 billion. And mental health services have a starring role, making sure that licensed therapists or psychologists from the Department of Behavioral Health are on all 216public school campuses.

Taking a mental health day is legit. Just ask the kids.

Staffing up isn’t going to be easy.

“Everybody knows that, around the country, there are really not sufficient numbers of [licensed social workers] to serve in various capacities,” the agency’s director, Barbara J. Bazron, told The Washington Post’s Perry Stein. “We are also working closely at getting more people in our pipeline through our internship programs and so forth. We are doing some of the same things that people around the country are doing.”

Good plan, adults. For the future.

But kids need help now.

“Many students don’t realize that their stress levels are rising until they have a panic attack,” said Abatan, a student at McKinley Tech High School. “They need to know what to do in the moment before they are overwhelmed to the point of adding more mental harm to themselves.”

The students proposed a $5 million initiative to create after-school mental health programs in 125 schools.

And they explained that while many schools do have resources, kids don’t know about them, are disconnected from them or are embarrassed to use them.

“At my school, you usually have to go to a teacher first to get help from a therapist,” Canales, a student at Columbia Heights Educational Campus, said in her testimony. “This presents a problem because students have to share why they need to see a therapist and may not feel comfortable sharing that with a teacher.”

Canales’s goal of becoming a therapist one day is a good one.

Let’s hope we can get it right sooner, though.