What's behind the spike in childhood anxiety and depression in Massachusetts

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The 2022 Kids Count Data Book indicates that the share of kids in the U.S. suffering from anxiety and depression spiked by nearly 26% from the years 2016 to 2020. But in Massachusetts, the percent increase was nearly double in that same time frame.

WBUR’s Carrie Jung recently spoke with Mary McGeown, the executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to help explain the jump.

A 50% increase in anxiety and depression among kids in Massachusetts seems significant. Can you help provide some background?

"In Massachusetts, the share of kids ages 3 to 17 who had a clinical diagnosis of anxiety or depression was 12% in 2016. That share rose to 18% in 2020." (Nationally, the share was 9.4% of kids in 2016 and 11.8% in 2020).

"We knew pre-pandemic that behavioral health challenges were a big issue. Parents reported to us that their children were more anxious and the pandemic exacerbated that. And for children, they typically receive services in school. So when the pandemic turned everything upside down, for a lot of children, access to behavioral health services ended.

"While telehealth services were put into place quickly, they didn't work for all kids. When kids were doing eight hours on Zoom for school, the idea of also connecting for an hour with a therapist online was a challenge.

"We also heard from parents about children suddenly not being able to go to school or socialize or see their teachers. They became isolated and lonely and that really contributed to feelings of anxiety and depression."

Why is the percentage of kids with these diagnoses so much higher in Massachusetts and other areas of New England than the national rate?

"We're able to identify kids [through regular health screenings]. We have the second highest number of kids in special education in the country. That's relevant because when a child is being screened for special education services, they're also being assessed for social and emotional learning and behavioral issues.

"We also lead the country when it comes to children being insured. That means kids are more likely to be going to well visits every year and those visits typically include mental health screenings."

So where do we go from here? And what is the state doing to address the need for services?

"There is new legislation that will offer many new updates to the system. What's known as the Mental Health ABC Act impacts adults and kids.

"For example, this legislation limits the ability of kids to be expelled from pre-school. If you're 3 or 4 years old and you're kicked out, or even if you're regularly suspended and only end up at school two days a week, your ability to begin to thrive or get the services you need and to do well in kindergarten is already being diminished.

"This legislation also requires that schools create a plan in case there is a behavioral health crisis in their school. We do it for fire and natural disasters. So if a child is in crisis and needs behavioral health supports, the first line of defense should not be to call the police department. Now all schools will need to create plans as to how they and their teachers will respond to crises — so it comes from a position of empathy and support, so the child feels safe."

How challenging is it to offer services to children at this time?

"As an organization that provides behavioral health services, it's becoming harder and harder to bring people into this field. Part of it is just pay rates. We need to make sure we're compensating people that provide these services at the same level in the same way we do as people who work in other parts of the health care system.

"Really, anything we can do to invest in kids today, pays off 10 times as adults. Because we know that a child who is struggling with behavioral health issues is more likely to struggle in school, not graduate and might go on to have other issues."

This segment aired on August 19, 2022.


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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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