The Pulse

Reports highlight need for lawmaker action on student mental health

By: - February 18, 2022 11:00 am

The recently published annual report from the state’s Child Fatality Task Force details the increasing mental health needs faced by North Carolina’s children and outlines steps the state should take to promote the safety and well-being of children. A second report from the Hopeful Futures Campaign details the inadequacy of our state lawmakers’ response.

The Child Fatality Task Force’s report focus on student mental health reflects a growing recognition of the challenges facing today’s youth. The report does an excellent job of documenting these growing challenges. It makes for a difficult read.

Through 2019, all the trends are heading in the wrong direction. The percentage of high school students who feel sad or hopeless and the percentage who feel alone in their life are both creeping upwards. The percentage who feel good about themselves is falling. Most distressingly, suicidal behaviors are also trending in the wrong direction.

The data shows that suicidal behaviors are shockingly prevalent among LGBTQ youth. Nearly half of high school students identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual report having seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. This compares to 16 percent among students identifying as heterosexual.

These discrepancies are quite notable given the recent efforts of right-wing reactionaries to ban books that feature LGBTQ characters and themes, and having homosexuality described as “filth” by the Lieutenant Governor.

To reverse these trends, the Task Force recommends that the General Assembly fund social workers, nurses, counselors, and school psychologists at recommended ratios. This recommendation is also one of the key elements of the Leandro Plan that has been at the center of education policy debates for the past year.

The Leandro Plan is the detailed roadmap for providing all students with a constitutional education. It is based on extensive research by some of the country’s leading nonpartisan education experts and has been agreed to by all the parties involved in the 28-year-long Leandro court case. Unfortunately, legislative leaders have ignored the Plan.

In addition to ignoring the constitutional rights of students, the Hopeful Futures Campaign details how legislative leaders have also ignored the mental health needs of students. Their report ranks the states in terms of youth mental health. Since 2015, North Carolina has fallen from 30th to 42nd. Most notably, their report gives North Carolina poor marks for staffing of school mental health professionals and for failing to support healthy school climates.

It is important to note that the Task Force’s data predates the COVID pandemic. The anti-masking crowd would have you think that student mental health challenges are the result of mask mandates and that all will be better if we simply “free the smiles.” As the Task Force report shows, that’s poppycock.

The mental health challenges of North Carolina students have been trending in the wrong direction for years. The proven solution – more funding for school mental health professionals – has been ignored by legislative leaders. As the Hopeful Futures Campaign notes, our poor staffing levels are an outlier among other states.

It is long past time for legislative leaders to stop ignoring these issues and provide our students with the supports they are owed.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.