The kids are not OK. That was the title of an editorial last year in the Boston Globe covering the adolescent mental health crisis. Experts say it is as devastating as the pandemic responsible for it. And in the twelve months since that article, the crisis has worsened, not improved. Hundreds of suicidal teens are housed in emergency rooms waiting for beds every night, in part because treatment beds have declined 30% while suicide rates have jumped 60%. The backlog for therapists and neuro-psych evaluations is months, and in some places, years long. The cost of care is skyrocketing.
I have experienced this backlog firsthand as a parent. It took numerous phone calls and a 4 month wait to get a school recommended evaluation appointment for one of our kids. The wait time at Boston Children’s Hospital, where our pediatrician is, was 18 months. The person we did finally find didn’t accept insurance. At that point, if you can remotely afford it, you don’t care.
I am also experiencing this crisis as an employer. About 20% of Team WeSpire are parents with teenagers. At least half of us have teens needing significant mental health support right now. Across the nation, twenty-five percent of working parents said they have needed mental health support for their kids, mostly over the last year. A survey run by behavioral health provider Brightline found that one in five working adults had quit their job or planned to quit because of their kid’s mental health. So far, thanks to our flexible schedule and “work from anywhere” model, no one on our team has had to. But calls taken from waiting rooms or nearby cafes are common.
The good news is that a national response is emerging, from the Surgeon General to the Academy of Pediatrics. The administration just announced $85M in additional funding - a drop in the bucket, but a start. Additional recommended measures include reimbursing mental health visits more in line with physical health visits, establishing more pediatric treatment beds and facilities, and increasing the number of school counselors. Some, like Kara Baskin, the parenting editor at the Globe, are calling for an Operation Warp Speed focused on mental health. “COVID has proved that in times of crisis, we can harness urgency and create solutions that once seemed impossible. But pandemics wane. Depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations? They’re chronic. They must be tamed like a virus, which demands the immediate reframing of mental health care as a medical issue requiring proactive treatment, not a nice-if-you-can-get-it reward for networking and luck that leaves too many kids behind.”
So what can leaders do to support their parents? Ensuring you offer comprehensive mental health insurance coverage is step one. As Naomi Allen, CEO of Brightline said, “If you're looking for pediatric behavioral health services as an individual, you're 10 times more likely to have to go out of network than you would for primary care. So first and foremost, it's self-insured employers really demanding that insurance companies get their act together and put pediatric mental health services in-network and create coverage models for inclusive assessments and diagnoses and testing.” The next most important aspect is flexibility, akin to what WeSpire offers, so parents can get kids the care they need. Dena Bravata, from Lyra Health, also recommends establishing an employee resource group for parents that offers robust mental and behavioral health programming and resources.
What I’ve learned, and heard from other leaders, is that we also have a powerful role to play in destigmatizing mental health care by sharing our own experiences. Cancer used to have a stigma around it. But now few would hesitate to tell colleagues that their kid is battling cancer, and often workplaces rally to support those colleagues. By being open ourselves, we can destigmatize mental health issues and help rally support when one of our families is facing deeply stressful issues, whether self-harm, anxiety attacks or an eating disorder.
When our kids hurt, we hurt. So as the pandemic turns endemic, we must address the other crisis it left in its wake. We all have a role to play - as a supportive friend and neighbor, a colleague, a leader and/or a voter. Let’s get these kids back to being OK.