Are you feeling tired, anxious, sad, lonely, frustrated, or depressed—perhaps more than usual right now? If this sounds like you, you are not alone; many U.S.-based adults are feeling some mental strain as we enter month 16 of the coronavirus pandemic.
But it is not just the grown-ups. This also describes how a lot of children have been feeling. And it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Many kids spent the past school year struggling to stay engaged and keep their grades up while learning virtually during closures. Some experienced the heartbreak of losing loved ones to Covid-19, and the psychological strain of their parents losing employment. They have watched social injustice time and time again on television and social media. They have lost a year of “normal” childhood—playdates with friends, trips to playgrounds and the movies, proms and graduations.
Research has revealed the pandemic’s effect on kids’ mental states. The Child Mind Institute’s Coronavirus Health and Impact Survey found that a much higher proportion of children felt very or moderately sad, depressed, or unhappy. A Mental Health America report based on surveys conducted in 2020 found 11- to 17-year-olds were more likely than any other age group to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout the pandemic. The same research found more than half of kids surveyed reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Despite the reopening of our nation, this children’s mental health crisis is not over yet. As we learned from past disasters, the pandemic’s effects on children and youth whose lives have been upended may persist for years. Some kids may struggle to re-engage with schools and broader societal life as we return to normalcy.
The sheer scale and complexity of this crisis are such that no one company, organization, school, or individual can tackle it on their own. But if we don’t act fast, we will fail our children.
We need a better approach.
First, we need to understand the intersection of children’s mental health with so many important factors. That includes physical health, education, workplace capacity, social equity, and criminal justice reform, just to name a few. If we can understand how these factors are interconnected, we can help address social inequity and prevent the criminalization of youth, especially in vulnerable communities while impacting mental health.
Second, we need to move beyond that understanding and into a position of advocacy. It is noteworthy that 75% of all lifetime mental illness begins before the age of 24, making early intervention a critical step in improving the wellbeing of our future workforce. We need to be educating ourselves, fighting stigma, and looking for expert resources.
As part of that work, we’ve seen several corporate partners stand up and create more extensive programs to support their own employees’ mental health. But not nearly enough has been done to support the needs of our children. In fact, philanthropic giving for mental health counts for only 1.3% of the total funding—despite research that shows more than 20% of U.S. adults experience mental illness. The portion of funding dedicated to children’s mental health is even smaller. There just aren’t enough resources to support everyone in need.
Finally, we need to support innovation. With such little funding in this area, there is very little room to see groundbreaking resources reach those that need it most. Finding ways to seek out those organizations and expand their pool of funding will be key to driving impact. For that reason, the Morgan Stanley Alliance launched our inaugural Innovation Awards to help funders to identify and support game-changing mental health care solutions for children and young people. Platforms like this can help connect innovators with capital and ultimately change the lives of our kids for the better.
While we like to describe kids as “resilient,” the truth is, they need our help when it comes to mental wellness. We cannot wait for the next school year for teachers and counselors to prioritize mental health—we must act now. We should consider it our obligation. We owe it to our children to make a difference for the next generation and help them emerge from this difficult situation stronger and better equipped to handle whatever life my bring them next.
Joan Steinberg is president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and CEO of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Advisory Board.
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