Long before the coronavirus pandemic upended their lives by shutting down schools, sickening their parents and separating them from friends, a survey released Tuesday shows disturbing information about the mental health struggles and well-being of California’s children.
Among the most frightening findings: More than a third of California high school students reported experiencing chronic sadness or hopelessness, and 1 in 6 had considered suicide, according to the advocacy organization Children Now. Nearly half felt disconnected from their school, according to the data collected in 2018 and 2019, a number that has almost certainly increased since the anxiety-ridden and isolating transition to distance learning.
“The alarming reality is that kids were not the priority before the pandemic, and they still aren’t,” Children Now President Ted Lempert said in a news release. “Many children, especially children of color, have lost their security and their connection to school, caring adults, and peers, and as a result are struggling with mental health issues.”
During the nearly yearlong upheaval COVID-19 has caused in the nation’s most populous state, children and teens have been saddled with extreme stress and social isolation, and many are not receiving the preventive health care they need, Children Now reports.
The data project released Tuesday focused on mental health, education, early childhood and prenatal care. There were also indicators specific to children in foster care, including access to health care and their experiences in school.
The education data was among the most devastating finding. Well before the coronavirus became a global plague, only 72% of third graders were reading at or near grade level, and the vast majority of students were not showing grade-level sufficiency in science and math. Fewer than half were considered college- or career-ready.
But perhaps most chilling — and most deeply connected to the mental health issues identified in the report — is that only 54% of students reported feeling safe at school in an age where nearly 200,000 American children have been exposed to gun violence on campus.
Younger children aren’t faring much better than school-aged kids, according to the data. Only a quarter of children in working families had access to licensed child care. Only half of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool or transitional kindergarten.
For children in the foster care system, the study looked at whether they’re getting appropriate medical care and staying on track in school. While overall most were able to see doctors and dentists in a timely manner, those in rural counties had a harder time, likely due to a lack of providers nearby.
The newly released data reinforced well-established findings that youth in foster care often fall far behind their peers in academic achievement: They are far less likely to graduate from high school on time and the vast majority don’t exhibit grade-level sufficiency in reading, math or science.
Two bright spots in the data on child welfare are that 83% of kids in care statewide were living in a family-like environment, indicative of the state’s yearslong move away from group homes. Almost 60% had been in just one or two homes after two years in foster care, which helps offer some stability. Overall, nearly all foster children in the state had health insurance and 95% of kindergartners were up-to-date on vaccinations.
But the main takeaway highlighted by Children Now is that mental health struggles have become endemic among California’s kids and teens. The advocates suggest that state initiatives to address this have been too focused on treatment, often in a clinical setting, rather than accessible prevention services. Children Now suggests meeting young people where they already spend a lot of time, such as at schools and in community spaces.
“We need to do a much better job of supporting children’s mental health early and eliminate as many barriers to care as possible,” Lempert stated in the news release. “It is critical to our children’s future.”