Guest Commentary: At last, Delaware’s kids are getting the mental health support they deserve


Angela Kimball is the senior vice president for advocacy and policy at Inseparable, a national mental health nonprofit organization.

Our kids need help. And at long last, they’re getting it in the state of Delaware.

Gov. John Carney will today sign into law three bills that will inject vital resources into the state’s school mental health system. With his signature, Delaware is paving a road that other states would do well to follow if we are to truly meet the moment for children’s mental health.

Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions are surging in America, and kids are bearing the brunt of it, including right here in Delaware.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 37% of children report having poor mental health. Not only that, but 44% of teens have persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, a number reported to be up more than 40% over the last decade. In Delaware, about 11,000 youth are estimated to have experienced an episode of major depression in the past year. Worst of all, nearly 19% of high schoolers every year consider suicide, with 9% actually making an attempt.

The pandemic has only aggravated things. Since COVID-19 began, 1 in 3 parents have reported that their children’s emotional health is worse than before the pandemic.

It is critical to tackle this problem from all sides — working to prevent mental health conditions by investing in people from an early age, while simultaneously identifying and helping those who experience challenges as quickly as possible. Fifty percent of lifetime mental health conditions occur by age 14, and 75% occur by age 24. Early treatment of mental health conditions has been associated with better outcomes, yet the average time between the first appearance of symptoms and treatment is 11 years. School settings are the second-most common place that youth ages 12-17 receive mental health services, yet most lack appropriate resources to do so.

When I testified about the dire state of youth mental health in front of Delaware’s Senate Education Committee recently, I shared these startling statistics with lawmakers and underlined why proposed legislation that would provide mental health education to grades K-12 is so urgent.

They agreed.

Thanks to bipartisan support and the commendable leadership of House of Representatives Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Sens. Marie Pinkney, D-Bear; Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook; Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington; and Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, House bills 300, 301 and 303 will not only bring more counselors, psychologists and social workers to Delaware middle schools, but they will provide for mental health education for all ages — from kindergarten all the way through high school. What’s more, they make mental health more affordable by mandating that health plans cover annual well-being checks.

Given what we know about the life cycle of mental health conditions and early detection, the importance of these bills cannot be understated. The latest national data shows Delaware has one school psychologist for every 825 students and one social worker for every 2,547. In a state where 15% of children experienced an episode of major depression in the past year, we urgently need more school mental health professionals. Now, following the state legislature’s strong action to bring help to our youth, our kids are finally getting the vital support they need.

As a person who has devoted her life to advocating for improved mental health policies across the country, I commend the legislature and governor for doing the right thing. The bipartisan passage of this legislation serves as a tremendous step forward for youth mental health in Delaware and serves as a beacon of hope at a time when the fight for mental health reforms has never been more important.

Most importantly, though, it serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish when we all work together.

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