As our nation and commonwealth emerge from the horrors of COVID-19, shepherded through by strong Democratic leadership from the schoolhouse to the White House, a new pandemic has silently enveloped our society. Mental illness — exacerbated by the impact of the massive tragedies and societal restructuring of the last three years — has skyrocketed, creating a crisis which is ravaging our youth.
According to the National Institute on Mental Health, nearly half of all adolescents have some sort of mental disorder, and almost half of those children suffer from “severe mental impairments.” That same age group receives the least mental health treatment and services of any. And the demographic data shows these results are even worse for children of color. While mental health issues cover a fairly broad range of impairments, their outcomes are often shared — poor school performance, major impacts on physical health, substance abuse and addiction, and, most tragically, suicide.
Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey more than 40% of high school students said that feelings of sadness or hopelessness prevented them from engaging in their regular activities, 18% had made a suicide plan in the past year and 10% had attempted suicide one or more times during the past year. Suicide, the final outcome for far too many of untreated mental health issues, remains the second leading cause of death for young people in America. The lack of treatment options and the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health in many communities is creating a catastrophic failure. As this pandemic balloons, our treatment options are remaining stagnant and every day fewer children are receiving the necessary care to treat and manage these illnesses.
This crisis requires an all hands on deck approach, which is why I introduced Senate Bill 818 in the General Assembly this legislative session. SB818 would have required comprehensive, age-appropriate mental health education for every student in grades K-12 in Virginia public schools. Just like physical health classes, these courses would provide an opportunity for education, de-stigmatization of sensitive topics, and an open forum for students to ask questions and get appropriate, factual answers and support. Our students need an outlet, clear education and the ability to access mental health services if they are going to live healthy, vibrant lives. Providing that at school is just common sense. I was glad that my Senate colleagues agreed, passing the bill by a bipartisan vote of 39-1 on Feb. 7, sending it to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates for its review.
To my consternation, after less than a minute of discussion, Republicans on the House Education Committee killed the bill on a party-line vote, delaying for another year the critical support our students need, and continuing their failed policy of doing nothing and hoping things change.
Sadly, this is another addition to a long line of Republican failures on public education. Earlier this month, House Republicans reported a budget which cuts nearly $1 billion in ongoing revenues, returning those funds to their corporate donors and Virginia’s top earners. Senate Democrats instead chose to invest that $1 billion into our public education system, making the largest single investment in education in recent history. How there is even a debate over which path is better for the commonwealth confounds me.
Let’s call it what it is: Barring kids who are suffering from mental illness from accessing mental health treatment is another deplorable failure in the Republican agenda. And, as is becoming custom, our young learners will bear the brunt.
Virginia Sen. Lionell Spruill, Sr. represents the 5th District, which includes part of the cities of Chesapeake and Norfolk.