By Lia Chen/VTDigger
A national survey has ranked Vermont fifth in the nation for overall child well-being, but indicates there’s been a decline in key child mental health indicators in the state.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on improving child welfare, announced Monday the 2022 KIDS COUNT, an annual 50-state report that uses 16 indicators in four domains to rank states based on child well-being.
This year, Vermont ranked 12th in economic well-being, fifth in education, third in health, and third in family and community.
Vermont ranked fourth overall in the nation last year for child well-being.
Despite Vermont’s high ranking, the data indicates Vermont’s young people are facing increased challenges and crises.
Fourth graders not proficient in reading and eighth graders not proficient in math increased 4% and 5% respectively from last year. Child and teen deaths increased by three children per 100,000 and children and teens who are overweight or obese increased by 1%.
According to Voices for Vermont’s Children, a nonprofit aimed to improve child well-being, these increases have been linked to the “youth mental health pandemic,” as assessed by the U.S. surgeon general.
A press release Monday from Voices highlighted that, between 2016 and 2020 in Vermont, “the number of 3-(to)-17-year-olds experiencing depression or anxiety had already increased by 40%, from 13.7% to 19.2%.”
“These data are not even reflective of the acute and ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. We know that this was a preexisting trend that has worsened in the last two years,” said Sarah Teel, research director at Voices, in the press release.
“That these mental health trends exist in spite of Vermont’s ranking 5th overall in the country for child-well being is notable and points to the pervasiveness of this crisis,” said the Voices press release.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling consistently sad or hopeless in the past year.
The national press release from the Annie E. Casey Foundation outlined a number of policy initiatives it’s pushing to improve youth mental health services. Voices included those plans along with others specific to help the youth of Vermont.
One national policy was to “prioritize meeting kids’ basic needs.”
Teel championed this initiative in a recent interview and added that Vermont needs to do better to meet this standard. “Our safety net has been eroding just as it has been everywhere else, but we really need to bolster that so that families can meet those needs,” she said. “That’s just a foundational necessity.”
The Voices press release also urged policymakers to “fund and support existing equity initiatives.” Teel said projects such as the Health Equity Advisory Commission, which was established in Vermont in 2021 but remains underfunded, should be a priority.
“Initiatives like that need to be followed through with and actually truly supported,” said Teel.
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden said she couldn’t agree more. She advocated for increased access to mental health resources and support for Vermont’s youth, and also highlighted that the state Legislature took action on that cause in last year’s legislative session.
In a recent interview with VTDigger, Lyons discussed S.197/Act 112, “an act relating to the provision of mental health supports,” that became law in Vermont on May 11. The bill allocated $3 million to the Vermont Department of Mental Health and the Vermont Agency of Education “to work together to provide grants to a broad range of school people, community folks, health care, (and) mental health counselors,” said Lyons.
But Lyons acknowledged the Legislature’s work doesn’t stop there.
“One bill and one payment of $3 million and set of programs isn’t going to be comprehensive,” Lyons said. “We know that our schools are crying for help because what they’re seeing with kids goes beyond the capacity for their counselors.”
Lyons said the bill provides increased support to children in marginalized communities who often face additional barriers to mental health services. “Whether that’s because of poverty or because of racial and ethnic issues or cultural issues, it allows for folks to put together programs that will help them,” she said.
Teel emphasized more work could be done to help marginalized youth.
“The first step is through listening and acknowledgement because, not only is the data clear that there are disparate experiences, but it’s also a clearly voiced, lived experience,” said Teel, referring to the differing experiences of underserved youth. “Yet there’s not an acknowledgement of that reality.”
Act 112 also included increased support and funding for teachers on how to deal with their own mental health and how to effectively support children in difficult times. It also provided workforce development funds for people going into the mental health field.
Lyons said that, in next year’s legislative session, policymakers will be looking at the Casey report, at how children fared during the summer, and what more needs to be done to support youth. “There couldn’t be anything more important than providing support for kids right now,” she said.