State combats students’ mental health crisis with in-person learning, federal funds

Gov. Inslee urges schools to put $2.6 billion in federal pandemic relief funds toward student mental health

As of Monday, all students in Washington state who want to return to in-person learning can do so — at least part-time.

“I know that some students have benefited from remote learning, but this return is unequivocal part of the solution for so many younger Washingtonians,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a press conference.

In March, Inslee  signed an emergency proclamation requiring all public K-12 schools to provide both remote and in-person learning options to students. Families will still have the option to leave their child in remote learning full-time.

“Increasing the option to return to school facilities for all K-12 students will help to prevent or curtail mental and behavioral health issues for many students by reducing isolation and improving in-person access to educators, school personnel, mentors and peers,” the proclamation said.

The change is part of the state’s effort to address mental health concerns among students sparked by the stress and isolation of long-term remote learning.

“It makes it so hard for them to think of hope, of possibility and that’s just difficult for children to manage,” said Dr. Nwando Anyaoku, Chief Health Equity Officer at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. “This mental health crisis is a real and present danger to a whole generation.”

According to the governor’s proclamation, hospitals and health professionals who specialize in the treatment of children indicate that many of those children are experiencing a significant mental and behavioral health crisis as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

Specifically, the proclamation notes:

  • Pediatricians have seen a significant increase in youth with eating disorders, anxiety, mood disorders and depression with suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors since schools closed for in-person learning. They’ve also seen children experiencing a significant sense of isolation and loss, which is negatively
    impacting their learning and grades.
  • Hospitals have seen increases in youth admissions for mental and behavioral health issues, including:
    • Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane reported that acute care admissions to its Inpatient Adolescent Psychiatric Unit increased 73% in 2020 as compared to 2019 and acute care admissions to its General Pediatric Floor for behavioral health issues increased 68%.
    • Seattle Children’s Hospital reported that its psychiatric unit is currently the most over-stressed part of the hospital and, unlike before the pandemic, it is now normal for one to two children to be admitted every night at the hospital for attempted suicide.
  • University of Washington Medicine reports that depression and anxiety are now the two most common diagnoses for patients under the age of 27. It has seen 1,723 more patients with depression and 2,968 more patients with anxiety in 2021.

Inslee said while returning students to school is not a “total catch-all” to solve the student mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, it is a tangible step toward addressing some of the underlying issues.

“It is only a part of the solution to addressing mental and behavioral health issues for children and youth, many of whom will also need greater access to and availability of behavioral health services and supports, in and outside of schools, in order to forestall lifelong impacts from this pandemic,” the proclamation said.

The governor’s proclamation also orders the state Health Care Authority and state Department of Health to work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of children over the next six to 12 months.

The state is hoping that $2.6 billion dollars in federal pandemic relief for schools through the American Rescue Plan Act will help local school districts to address some of those needs. Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal are urging schools to direct much of the funding toward student mental health.

“We will also use these funds to inform how we work in Washington to achieve long-term solutions to remove long-term disparities,” Inslee said. “The lasting effect of this mental health crisis will be felt for some time.”

RELATED: Inslee signs emergency proclamation requiring hybrid in-person learning models for K-12 students