DC Must Continue Tackling the Youth Mental Health Crisis

August 21, 2023
Blog Post

By Rachel Metz on August 21, 2023

This spring and summer, we interviewed 80 District young people as part of the Youth Voices, Youth Power project, and the vast majority of them discussed mental health concerns. Experts bear out that concern. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on youth mental health, and leading child and youth medical organizations (the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association) jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. In the District, on the most recent Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (YRBS) (a federal survey that asked students about health-related experiences and behavior in fall 2021), over one in three (36 percent) high school students reported depression.

High school girls of color were more likely than white male peers to report depression, including 47 percent of Black girls and 50 percent of Latina girls. In middle school, over a quarter of students said they’ve seriously thought about killing themselves. At this age, girls of color were also more affected than their white male peers, including 38 percent of Black girls and 40 percent of Latina girls. When it comes to attempting suicide, the racial disparities are even greater, with Black middle and high school students roughly three times as likely to have attempted suicide as White middle and high school students.

While the reasons for this pattern are undoubtedly complex, the District’s longstanding economic disparities and segregation mean that Black students are more likely to live in high-poverty communities, which research shows correlates with higher suicide rates. And District students experiencing housing or food insecurity or neighborhood safety concerns were more likely to report having recently lost an adult or family member they cared about – 60 percent of those experiencing at least two issues reported having lost someone. In addition, multiple studies show that experiencing racial discrimination or microaggressions contributes to depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior – racism has a negative impact regardless of income. Recognizing that our students are struggling, the District has significantly invested in school-based mental health. As we prepare for Back to School, taking inventory of how we’re doing is helpful.

The landscape of mental health professionals in District schools is complicated. Some staff are school employees, some are Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) employees, and some are employees of Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) with whom DBH contracts to give students additional support. Regardless of their employer, adults should ensure that the schools and students who need the services the most, especially those in communities that have historically received fewer resources and have the most risk factors, now receive the help they need and deserve.

In the 2022-23 school year in DC Public Schools (DCPS), the ratio of students to social workers and psychologists was, if not better, in Wards 7 and 8, at least on par with DCPS overall. DCPS strives to have one school counselor per 250 high school students and 400 middle school students and roughly hits those targets across the wards. In elementary schools, however, DCPS has no specific target. There were very few school counselors – only three Ward 7 and 8 DCPS elementary schools had a counselor.

We do not have this level of information about charter schools. The DC Council’s Committee of the Whole asked DCPS for this information during Performance Oversight, but not the Public Charter School Board. And while the Office of the State Superintendent of Education provided an account of what they defined as “mental health faculty” for both DCPS and charter schools in their annual School Discipline Report, their definition included deans and assistant principals. These roles which have traditionally been disciplinarians rather than helping students cope with stress, process trauma, or improve emotional regulation over time. A strong therapeutic relationship has much better short– and long-term mental health outcomes.

Beyond school employees, as of July 2023, roughly half of District public schools have a DBH or CBO clinician, with better coverage for high schools than elementary and middle schools. Schools in Wards 7 and 8 seem equally likely to have a clinician as in other wards, though, at schools with a larger student body or higher share of struggling students, one may be the absolute minimum they need. However, DCPS schools have better coverage than charter schools – 62 percent of DCPS schools have a DBH or CBO clinician compared to 41 percent. Thanks in part to the School-Based Mental Health coalition advocating for stable or increased compensation for clinicians to address the number of vacancies, District officials applied for and won a grant to recruit and retain new mental health professionals. In addition, where there are DBH or CBO clinicians, advocates have been pushing for better integration into school communities so teachers and staff know that support is there for students.

Given the daunting level of need among young people, we have a long way to go, but are at least headed in the right direction to better support our students’ mental health. For families trying to understand their resources, DCPS has set up a website to try to help. And anyone wishing to get involved in systemic change on this issue is welcome to join the coalition led by our partners at Children’s Law Center- the more voices in the chorus, the better. Our young people ’s mental health is too important to not heed what they have to say.