Children’s mental health must become priority

The pandemic exposed a glaring need for attention to their social-emotional wellbeing

I’m the father of two pandemic babies, Teddy and Grace. Although one of Teddy’s first words was “mask,” my children are blissfully unaware of COVID. They will, however, grow up in its aftermath.

Right now, the debate about kids and COVID is focused on mask mandates in schools. That is the critical question in the immediate term. But it’s not the fundamental one. We are at a fork in the road for our long-term approach to children’s mental health.

One path is to ignore the lessons of COVID, or to learn them superficially. To leave schools unprepared for future outbreaks; to underfund care providers; to ignore the underlying causes of kids’ anxiety. The harder, better path for lawmakers is to make COVID a clarion call for children’s mental health. To outfit schools with policies and equipment to prevent closures or restrictions; to radically expand early education, childcare, wraparound services, and mental health support; and to unflinchingly address sources of anxiety.

We come to this fork in the road from a downward path. Pediatric psychiatric cases are spiking in Massachusetts, with kids and parents adrift. Educators and counselors from across my district tell me that many of their students, especially those from traditionally disadvantaged groups, have regressed over the pandemic. Scientists report early evidence of young brains rewired by the stresses of the last two years. Even kids who have weathered the storm okay have missed out on the activities and opportunities that are the hallmarks of growing up.

Like so many parents, this is not the path I want for my kids. Step one is the schools. Re-opening schools was my day-one priority when I took office in January 2021, and Congress sent more than $130 billion to school districts last winter to help them reopen. No school should be operating without high-quality ventilation and filtration systems. And, every school district should have clear, forward-looking infectious-disease policies that disavow closures and implement restrictions only as a last resort, with input from child psychologists and parents in addition to public health officials. If states and cities need more flexibility from American Rescue Plan funds to pandemic-proof their schools, then Congress must give it to them.

We must also expand youth services. Congress is working to guarantee affordable access to child care and early education for every family. Mental health should be part of that deal, too. But capping costs leads to shortages if we don’t simultaneously expand supply. There are too few pediatricians, inpatient providers, child psychologists, adjustment counselors, social workers, early educators, and childcare specialists. Boosting supply may require government at all levels to cut red tape for occupational licensing, subsidize workforce education, increase funding for afterschool and other wraparound programming, and change rules for insurance rates. If states need more flexibility from American Rescue Plan funds to achieve this, then Congress must give it to them. Congress must also pass two bipartisan bills, both of which I have cosponsored, to (1) better fund children’s mental health, and (2) incorporate collaborative care models, which integrate mental health services with primary care.

Critics may decry this as government overreach. These services, though, are as fundamental as the transportation and utilities that Congress funded with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—with an even higher return on investment. The economist Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights lab rates spending on children’s health and education as the best bang for the taxpayers’ buck. (Not that it’s mutually exclusive: improving our neighborhoods’ walkability with those infrastructure funds will also help mental health.)

It’s not just plans or programs, though. Our children’s mental health is also a function of how they process reality. As a member of Congress, I am constantly up close to bad news: extremist politics, climate change, gun violence, war and humanitarian disaster, gross inequality – sometimes all in one day. But I have the context to register the distress I see, and the agency to help. Our kids have neither, really. The result is anxiety.

We must provide kids with richer context and more agency. Social media and video games – and their alarming offspring, the metaverse – distort context. Outrage-as-a-service politics cheapens the meaning of agency, from diligent changemaking to thoughtless clickbait. Last month I met with a range of child development professionals, from pediatricians to teachers, to discuss these and other sources of pervasive anxiety. No discussion I have had in office has packed such a punch.

I’ve only been a congressman for one year and a parent for two, but I am committed for the long haul to improving children’s socioemotional wellbeing. It’s a special responsibility I have as the youngest parent in the House Democratic caucus. COVID is a fork in the road: let’s take the harder, better path for our kids.

Jake Auchincloss represents the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District.