Image: Shuttersock
Image: Shuttersock

In Pennsylvania, the percentage of children with depression or anxiety has increased over the years, mirroring a national trend that shows children are in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Pennsylvania may rank in the middle of the pack nationally for overall child well-being, but worsening mental health trends highlight a need for increased student services in schools

The 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book, a 50-state report of recent household data developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, sheds light on the health, economic, and other challenges affecting children across the country. The report found that children are in the midst of a mental health crisis, including Pennsylvania’s youth.

In the commonwealth, one out of every 12 high schoolers have attempted suicide, according to the report. The percentage of children with depression or anxiety in Pennsylvania grew from 10.2% (226,000) in 2016 to 13% (282,000) in 2020.

The Data Book presents national and state data from 16 indicators in four domains — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors — and ranks states according to how children are faring overall.

This is how Pennsylvania ranked nationwide:

  • Economic well-being: 23rd
  • Educational well-being: 7th
  • Health: 20th
  • Family and community well-being: 25th

The state also ranked 24th for the number of uninsured children. Children with health care coverage are more likely to get regular checkups that include mental health and social-emotional development screenings.

During the pandemic, a record number of children enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) thanks to a federal disenrollment freeze. As the state starts to roll back from the continuous coverage requirement, 346,000 children are at risk of losing their health care coverage, according to the state Department of Human Services.

The report recommends that schools increase the presence of social workers, psychologists, and other mental health professionals on staff, striving to meet the 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors recommended by the American School Counselor Association. It also recommends that schools work with local health care providers and local and state governments for additional resources and to coordinate treatment, 

Staffing up to provide better mental health care for Pennsylvania students would be nearly impossible under Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.

Mastriano wants to make significant cuts to education funding, with plans to reduce school funding from $19,000 per student to just $9,000. He has also called for the complete elimination of local school property taxes.

According to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Mastriano’s plan would slash state education funding by $17.6 billion, or 53%. School districts would see a total cut of $11 billion in funding. Nearly 119,000 education jobs — including counselors, nurses, and other critical school staff — would be eliminated. The student-to-teacher ratio would more than double.

“It’s hard to even imagine just how devastating these impacts would be,” said Rich Askey, PSEA president. “What would our schools look like with a fraction of the teachers, school counselors, school nurses, custodians, bus drivers, and aides? What would this mean for the education and well-being of Pennsylvania’s students?”

State lawmakers recently took steps to address the student mental health crisis, something the Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro, has repeatedly said would be a priority for his administration.

Included in the 2022-23 Pennsylvania state budget is an historic $1.8 billion increase in education funding. Every district in the commonwealth will see an 8% increase in its funding. There are even some resources specifically earmarked for student mental health.

In June, state lawmakers introduced a package of bi-partisan bills that would provide funding for mental health-based internships for school counselors and projects that support students’ behavioral and mental health.