”New York had a mental crisis in children long before COVID-19. It is imperative that New York State and New York City make children’s mental health a priority, especially for the black and brown children disproportionately devastated by the pandemic.”
For countless children in New York City who grow up in the communities hardest hit by COVID-19, the trauma of the pandemic will remain with them for the rest of their lives. According to a recent study by the Citizens’ Committee for Children, New Yorkers who are black, Hispanic, or immigrant endured the highest rate of COVID-19-related illness or death.
Meanwhile, black and Spanish children experienced losses doubling the number of Asian or white children. It is no wonder that the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits for children aged 5 to 11 increased by approx. 24 percent during the pandemic, and for children ages 12 to 17, visits increased by 31 percent.
New York had a mental crisis in children long before COVID-19 brought life-changing trauma to hundreds of thousands more families. It is imperative that New York State and New York City make children’s mental health a priority, especially for the black and brown children disproportionately devastated by the pandemic.
Latin American families have historically faced a unique set of challenges when it comes to access to mental health care due to language barriers and other cultural insensitivities. In August 2020, the CDC released its Youth Risk Survey, which said that in 2019, Latina teens in New York City had the highest level of suicidal thoughts among their high school students before COVID19. Now, 42 percent of the Latinx community has the highest degree of COVID-related anxiety and depression compared to any other ethnic and racial group, and 34 percent of New York City Latinx had the highest mortality among underserved communities, with the number equal higher in the hardest hit parts of the Bronx. These issues are a result of systemic and mental health, housing, food security, employment and educational disparities, and inequality in resources available during the pandemic.
Comunilife’s Life is Precious ™ (LIP) program has been providing suicide prevention services to vulnerable Latin teens and their families since 2008. Living in some of New York City’s lowest income, racial and ethnic communities, LIP families have been disproportionately and severely affected by COVID. For more than 15 months, our teens and their families have endured ongoing social and economic stressors – job losses; food insecurity loss of family member due to COVID; undocumented status crowded apartments; poor distance education and isolation – resulting in higher levels of hopelessness, anxiety, depression and suicide attempts among teenagers and their families.
Despite providing more intensive services, more than a dozen Latina teens have been identified as at high risk for suicide. In addition, for the first time in LIP’s history, there have been 18 psychiatric admissions in the last five months. If this was not bad enough, the lack of psychiatric beds for children and adolescents in New York has led to teens being placed in hospitals in Westchester County, where it is difficult for parents to visit and beds in long-term housing are almost impossible to find.
While the effects are devastating, we remain hopeful that there is a promising way forward given the documented success of the Life is Precious program ™. Prior to the pandemic, the services, which include academic support, expressive art therapy, health / wellness activities and family casework, have been successful. Research has shown that for every month a Latin teenager participates in Life is Precious at, her level of suicidal thoughts and depression decreases. For teens in Latina with a history of sexual abuse and / or drug and alcohol abuse, these declines were deeper. What this tells us is that we know what works – funders just need to support organizations that provide affordable, high-quality services to families and children.
The mental health crisis facing Latina teenagers and the wider Spanish community will only be resolved with systemic change. The city’s outpatient mental health system lacks sufficient capacity to provide mental health services to a growing population in desperate need of care. New York State must create and support a robust continuum of primary health and behavioral health care for children, adolescents, and their caregivers – offering integrated care in pediatric settings and developmental and behavioral health support in early care and education and schools.
Using New York State-allocated resources from the U.S. Rescue Plan, we need to find a way to reduce waiting lists at community mental health clinics, partially hospitalize adolescents, and increase the number of bilingual and bilingual therapists, but just as important is reducing financial, housing , food insecurity and educational factors exacerbating this COVID-19 related mental health crisis.
New York City cannot recover without its children, and its children cannot heal without access to high-quality mental health services. The time to act is now.
Dr. Rosa M. Gil is the founder, president and CEO of Comunilife.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255.
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