The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on June 8, 2023 titled “Why Are So Many American Youth in a Mental Health Crisis?” exploring causes and solutions to examine the mental health issues youth face and the need for an improved infrastructure for mental health care. Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) began the hearing by acknowledging the impact of the pandemic and social media on the mental health of young Americans. Multiple witnesses referenced the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the gun safety bill passed in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last year that included significant funding for mental health initiatives.

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, emphasized the harmful impact of social media on youth mental health and the increase of loneliness especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Admiral Murthy believes there needs to be a generational effort to rebuild social connections and community in America to address the potential harms of social media through age-appropriate health and safety standards and data transparency requirements, trauma specifically from violence, and the negative stigma surrounding mental health.

Mrs. Katherine Neas, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education, highlighted three top priorities that the Board of Education currently has; increasing the skill and knowledge of existing school personnel to support the mental health needs of students, increasing the supply of mental health professionals who can work with students, and increasing funding through Medicaid programs to support mental health services.

Charlene Russell-Tucker, commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE), discussed the state’s “Big Audacious Goal” campaign to implement a coordinated and sustainable system of behavioral and mental health support in all K-12 institutions in Connecticut by providing students and faculty with comprehensive mental health services. The state has made substantial investments in the mental health of students, including funding for employment of school mental health specialists.

Dr. Joshua Garcia, Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, spoke about students facing human trafficking, homelessness, drug abuse, physical and mental abuse, social media harassment, and bullying. In response, they implemented the “Tacoma Whole Child Initiative” that focuses on elements such as prevention strategies, response strategies, and therapeutic services. Superintendent Garcia makes a call to action to expand on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and incentivize the healthcare industry to partner with schools.

Dr. Joy D. Osofsky, an expert in pediatrics, psychiatry, and public health, highlighted her partnership with Ranking Member Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to enhance mental health support in schools and communities. The result of their efforts is provisions in the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act and SUPPORT Act which aim to expand community-based behavioral health services and enhance access to mental health care in both rural and urban areas. Collaboration with schools and community organizations, trauma-informed training for school personnel, and recognizing the impact of trauma on students were highlighted as essential strategies for providing effective mental health support.

This hearing builds on work done by the Committee in the 117th Congress to address the mental health of children and youth, a high priority for the Chairman and Ranking Member and many of the committee members. CWLA’s Legislative Agenda includes recommendations for mental health that promote collaboration between the child welfare system, policymakers, educators, healthcare professionals, families, and the community.

By Miyah Jones and Asia Leach, Policy Interns