The word pandemic is fresh on the lips of Americans, but unfortunately, there is an even bigger menace lurking behind the big "P" word which will have an even more profound impact than the pandemic- - our mental health crisis. It may be decades before our children recover from the impact of the pandemic; rates of youth depression have doubled between 2019 and 2021. In fact, The U.S. Surgeon General has warned of a devastating mental health crisis for the generation that will shape our future. From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students feeling persistently sad or hopeless increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%. 

The Covid pandemic has only fanned the flames of the crisis. Between 2019 and 2021, 25% of kids reported depressive symptoms and 20% experienced anxiety. 

In response, the White House is reaching for its Black Amex in yet another knee-jerk policy solution. We shouldn’t count on heavy-handed, top-down government ‘initiatives’ to heal our youth. Our nation’s young people can only flourish through harboring healthy social connections made in religious organizations, boys and girls clubs, churches, sports teams, and youth groups. It is not cash, but the community that helps young people to live happy, fulfilled, and connected lives. 

The Federal government mustn't assume it knows what is best for each town, city, and suburb. It is only local leaders themselves who understand the psychological needs of the children in their community. The only way to rebuild at the national level is to connect at the local one. 

In 1998, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente conducted a landmark study into traumatic experiences that occur in early life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study revealed that ACEs fell into three categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and included emotional, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. The more factors present in a child’s life, the greater their ACE score, and the higher the likelihood that he or she would be at increased risk for poor physical, mental, behavioral, and social outcomes later in life. 

Children with higher ACE scores are more likely to develop lifelong depression, abuse drugs or alcohol, or develop diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These diseases reportedly kill 41 million people a year. It has also been found that there is a correlation between ACEs and poor educational outcomes, higher unemployment, and increased involvement with the criminal justice system. 

The human cost is tragic, and the economic cost is severe. High ACE scores already cost the economy US$748 million. Now, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I predict that American children’s ACE scores are set to sky-rocket. 

Federal dollars and government initiatives are simply not working. In 2019, the US mental health spending reached $225 billion, which is an increase of 52.1% from 2009. Even with these eye-watering amount funds made available, many children are simply not receiving the care they need; in 2016, of the 7.7 million children with a treatable mental health disorder, approximately half did not receive treatment. 

Rural parts of the nation simply don’t have mental health provisions. In fact, more than 112 million Americans live in areas where mental health provision is scarce. No matter how much money is made available by the government, without the staff and appropriate supports to provide care, America’s children will remain untreated. 

Ultimately, humans are social beings. Psychologists universally agree that social connection is a fundamental pillar of mental health; the need for community is humanity's herd instinct. When we are denied that, (as many children have been), then our heart-breaking statistics start to make more sense. 

It is unsurprising then that school closures and the social isolation they bring have been blamed as the core trigger of the crisis. Our best approach will not come from top-down federal spending, but from bottom-up, grassroots engagement. More mental health practitioners in schools may help the problem, but they won’t fix the problem; socializing in family units, religious groups, sports teams, and community support programs like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs (BGC) will. 

It has been proven that the long term-effects of ACEs can be remediated by community services, skill-building opportunities, and protective, supportive relationships. In fact, the most common factor among children who show resilience is at least one stable and responsive relationship with a supportive adult.   Relying on the school mental health practitioner won’t be enough. We have to be the boots on the ground in our own communities, for our kids’ friends, our neighbors’ kids, maybe even the kid who delivers our groceries or our pizza. Most importantly, They need us to notice when something is wrong, to be there for them, to care, and to just listen. 

The only way we’re going to beat this epidemic is by tackling it at a grassroots level, state by state, community by community. This is a fight that will be won or lost, not through federal spending, or programs dreamed up in Washington DC, but by the collective efforts of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors, coaches, teachers, and community leaders in every state, city and small town across the nation.

Vicki Mayo is an Entrepreneur, Mental Health Expert, Child Welfare Advocate and CEO and Founder of The TouchPoint Solution LINK URL: https://thetouchpointsolution.com