In the past year, 10 students in the Tacoma school district in Washington state have been shot. Others have survived human trafficking; battled homelessness; and dealt with substance use, physical and mental abuse, social media harassment, and bullying, Superintendent Joshua Garcia said.
The challenges aren’t unique to Tacoma or even Washington state. They represent nationally persistent problems that lead to worsening mental health and higher rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety among students, Garcia said while testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Thursday.
“Although these may not be new challenges to us as a nation, the speed of the incidences and the traumatic stress are only increasing,” Garcia said. “Like you and I, our students are being bombarded with images, news events, daily experiences of trauma, and hate and stress. Unlike us, they’re doing this without fully developed brains, coping skills, or access to preventative and therapeutic services.”
Garcia was one of five experts to testify during the Senate HELP committee’s hearing on the worsening youth mental health crisis. One of them was U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who has labeled kids’ worsening mental health the “defining public health issue of our time.”
In 2021, two in five high school students, including 60 percent of girls and 70 percent of LGBTQ+ students, reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless. And one in five students reported making a suicide plan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regular Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey.
Murthy identified social media, loneliness and isolation, lack of community engagement, trauma, and world challenges, such as climate change, gun violence, racism, political polarization, and economic instability, as significant drivers of the youth mental health crisis.
“For many young people their confidence in the future has been undermined by the serious challenges they are set to inherit from economic inequality and climate change to racism and gun violence,” Murthy said. “The bottom line is our kids can’t afford to wait longer for us to address the youth mental health crisis.”
Murthy urged senators to expand access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care for children, and also work to tackle the causes of mental health problems, such as social media and trauma caused by gun violence.
Supporting school-based measures
During his testimony, Garcia, who was recognized as a 2015 Week Education Leader to Learn From while he served as Tacoma’s deputy superintendent, highlighted the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative—an effort that he said is shifting schools’ focus from episodic responses during moments of crisis to a sustainable effort to support student well-being.
The district has schools focus on prevention strategies, response strategies, and therapeutic services for students, Garcia said. Each school has developed a plan to support social-emotional learning, through which students learn skills such as relationship building and self-regulation. Students have opportunities for physical and mental wellness activities during the school day and after school through partnerships with community organizations. The 29,000-student district also uses positive behavioral interventions and supports to ensure that students understand expectations, uses universal mental health screenings, and ensures that schools develop strong relationships with families.
The district is also working to decrease the ratio of students to school psychologists and mental health workers, using federal funding made available during the COVID-19 pandemic. Garcia encouraged senators to increase funding for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed last year after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, providing $2 billion for schools to support mental health services as well as $350 million to support community learning centers and school safety measures.
He also called on Congress to incentivize health care providers to partner with schools and require states to match the federal government’s investment in mental health services to boost available resources.
The Education Department has said that the first round of Bipartisan Safer Communities Act grants dedicated to growing the school-based mental health workforce will add 14,000 school psychologist, counselor, and social worker roles to schools. But that is still far from what is needed to meet student mental health demands, experts say.
“America’s schools and individual communities can’t do this alone,” Garcia said. “We must work in partnership.”
A spotlight on social media
Youth mental health has been a rare point of bipartisan agreement for lawmakers over the past few years—as evidenced by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Within that agreement is a bipartisan understanding that social media is a strong contributor to youth mental health issues.
Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., held up their cell phones at different points during the hearing, portraying them as dangerous tools in the hands of youth.
“The biggest drug we’ve got is this right here,” Tuberville said. “We’ve all got it. There’s not a person in here who doesn’t have one of these. I’m guilty like everybody else and I stay on it. I think everything on there is true but it’s not, but our young kids think that it is. That’s the problem.”
Murthy used the hearing as an opportunity to highlight some of the policy suggestions his office made when it issued an advisory on the negative impacts of social media on youth mental health in May. As of 2021, 8th and 10th graders spent an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, and a study of teenagers ages 12 to 15 found that those who spend more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the advisory.
Murthy urged senators to consider legislation that puts safeguards in place, including stricter age verification enforcement for children under 13—the minimum age to open an account on most social media sites—and stronger data privacy so children aren’t targeted by harmful advertisements.
He also suggested requirements that social media companies be more transparent about the harmful impacts of social media on youth mental health and be required to ensure that they’re not exposing children to harmful content, bullying, and harassment, or employing features that keep children on social media longer.
Some lawmakers have already introduced bills that would institute such measures. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Katie Britt, R-Ala., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act in April, which would set a minimum age requirement of 13, require parental consent for kids 13 to 17, and prevent social media companies from using algorithms to feed content to children until they turn 18.
“These are incredibly complex platforms that are rapidly evolving, fundamentally changing how our kids see themselves and interact with the world,” Murthy said. “And parents need help here to interpret and understand their safety.”