The U.S. is facing “an acute escalation” in mental and behavioral health incidents, especially among children, according to a national survey of county governments.
The National Association of Counties, a nonprofit founded in 1935 to represent the nation’s elected county officials and employees, released the nationally representative survey of 232 county governments on Thursday.
It found that 75% of counties reported an increase in behavioral health incidents in the past year and 89% said the tally is up from five years ago.
“With our vast responsibilities in public health, safety, human services, emergency response and more, county governments see the full picture when it comes to mental health,” said NACo President Denise Winfrey, an elected commissioner in Will County, Illinois, south of Chicago. “This new data underscores the need for stronger intergovernmental partnerships and outcomes.”
The group’s Commission on Mental Health and Wellbeing released the findings on Capitol Hill, where members attended the White House State and Local Partners Forum on Mental Health and Wellbeing. They also met with the Bipartisan Mental Health Caucus and the Bipartisan Addiction Task Force.
A NACo report on the findings said “youth behavioral health needs” — including suicides, drug abuse, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, and hospitalizations for emotional disorders — were “at the center of the crisis.”
According to the survey, 67% of counties reported that youth behavioral health conditions were “definitely a problem” or “very prevalent and/or severe.” Another 74% of counties cited financial costs as a barrier to expanding behavioral health services and 71% mentioned a shortage of direct service providers.
Pierce County, the second most-populated county in Washington State and home to the city of Tacoma, reported that a survey of 10th graders found 18% did not feel safe at school amid a surge of youth violence.
NACo noted that COVID-19 restrictions sparked an uptick in mental health problems that overwhelmed many county courts, jails, juvenile justice systems, hospitals, parks, libraries, homelessness services and youth services.
Among those surveyed, 72% of counties described the shortage of behavioral health workers to deal with the surge as “definitely a problem” or “a severe problem.”
California’s Tulare County saw a 168% increase in youths experiencing a behavioral health crisis “throughout the pandemic,” the report said.
The NACo report proposes several concrete policy changes, including:
• Amending Medicaid policies that exclude inmates and certain mental illnesses from coverage
• Obtaining direct and flexible streams of taxpayer money to support recruiting and training “a sufficient behavioral health workforce”
• Enhancing intergovernmental partnerships to develop and modernize local crisis response systems
• Enforcing policies that guarantee equitable coverage for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
The report comes after Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and leading mental health groups declared a “youth mental health crisis” in 2021.
It also comes after the surgeon general declared in an 81-page report earlier this month that loneliness has become a “public health epidemic” in the COVID era.
In multiple media interviews, Dr. Murthy has blamed social media apps for making youths feel more disconnected socially during the pandemic.
Recent studies have found that anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts all increased among minors — especially teenage girls — after K-12 schools closed their campuses and required virtual learning in 2020 and 2021.