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In her FY 2023 budget proposal, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) dedicates $3.8 million toward the support of in-school mental health programs. This follows the launch of the $36 million Recovery Fund for the increase in socio-emotional programming in District public and public charter schools over two years.
Even so, parents, clinicians and advocates continue to raise questions about how the District could best create a health care system with mental health services that young people and families can easily access, whether at home, in school, or any other setting.
For Ward 4 parent Amber Golden, doing so means connecting District schools with community-based organizations and attracting more clinicians of color that can tend to the needs of emotionally overwhelmed young people.
“I’m interested in seeing where the money is going, if the District will use a portion of the money to assess the services needed across the schools, and how well the process is going to be put together to ensure people who need services are getting them at different levels,” Golden said.
Golden, a mother of three, reflected on her efforts to connect her children to services during the pandemic. She said some places in the District had a six-week waiting period, while other providers never returned her calls. Golden commended administrators at her son Xavier’s school, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest, for partnering with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to provide clinicians during the quarantine period.
This budget season, Golden wants to ensure that young people in the District can access more clinicians of color.
“It’s a different way of thinking about education and mental health,” said Golden, a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. “It’s going to require increasing the [therapist] pipeline so more people are able to provide services and the Department of Behavioral Health [DBH] and community partners aren’t overloaded.”
During a budget oversight hearing on Monday, the D.C. Council Committee on Health engaged DBH representatives in discussion about school-based behavioral health programs and other topics of concern for parents and mental health advocates.
One week prior, Children’s Law Center and other community partners revealed their budget requests, including $10.3 million in funding for community-based behavioral health services and $2.4 million for the expansion of school-based programs. In explaining their reasoning, the group of advocates said with the dearth of providers, school-based behavioral health programs need to be sustained.
They also pointed out that compensation for providers, based on 2016 figures, does not account for increased cost-of-living expenses and inflation. That situation, in tandem with a backlog in clinician licensing, has intensified the dearth of behavioral health services for young people.
“The most common experience is parents calling and there’s no help available. We need to change that,” said Matthew Biel, chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Northwest.
“When we send parents around calling six or more clinics and they go to schools [that] can’t help, that’s not the way we need to respond as a city and system,” Biel said. “We need to think about the family experience first and how many doors are open and places where families get care so we can respond with what children need to get help and prevent suicide.”
Suicide counts as the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. During the pandemic, health experts recorded an increase in suicide attempts among young people. Suicidal thoughts, also known as suicidal ideation, have often been found to derive from overwhelming emotional pain. They’re often precipitated by mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder or depression.
In response to this crisis, the Children’s Law Center’s latest report, titled “A Path Forward,” includes recommendations for the establishment of a full continuum of psychiatric care for young people in the District, including but not limited to acute care, crisis stabilization and intensive outpatient care.
Earlier this month, Gail Avent, a District parent, reflected on the significance of the continuum of psychiatric care for young people. She said it would not only benefit them, but their families and teachers who end up mitigating the effects of unresolved trauma.
“There are so many entities that affect our children before they turn 18 that drop the ball because they’re siloed. We can be more collaborative and patient,” said Avent, founder and executive director of the Southeast-based Total Family Care Coalition.
“We have to provide support for parents and teachers for their self-care. Everyone gets burnt out and [with the] crime and violence, children grieve just like adults. Families heal together and we’re separating parents from children. [That’s why] I believe in holistic services we can provide daily to get that relief,” Avent said.