Young people need mental health services outside of school | Opinion

By Ebony Grace and Catherine P. Wilson

Out-of-School Time programs are the bedrock of supporting students’ academic and enrichment learning but currently are not receiving the necessary support to adequately address the long-term effects of the pandemic on youth, particularly in under-resourced communities.

These programs — including after-school and summer learning programs — provide the perfect opportunity to support youth who may be struggling with mental health challenges. With proper funding, Out-of-School programs across the country can use this opportunity to provide critical mental health resources to struggling youth in a post-pandemic world.

Across the United States, more than 107,000 Americans died annually from drug overdoses last year. Additionally, 88,000 died of alcohol abuse and 47,000 from suicide. Since 2017, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19 years old. These poor health outcomes are directly linked to poor mental health and a lack of access to mental health support and services in adolescence.

Over the course of the pandemic, youth not only experienced academic learning loss but social and emotional isolation as well. Educators across the country report a higher incidence of mental health struggles among students in an already burdened system of care.

Out-of-School Time programs already work toward addressing this burdened system and serve as a support for working parents and students who may be academically challenged and often provide a safe place to spend the afternoon with physical activities, food and enrichment support.

After-school and summer learning programs provide a special opportunity for youth to develop a rapport with trusted adults, which has a proven positive effect on mental health. This rapport is necessary for the growth and social and emotional development of youth in their formative years, which are often fraught with challenges.

The pandemic has magnified the challenges youth face, particularly for youth without access to adequate resources. Youth development professionals are willing and able to provide additional emotional support, but we as a society, funders and influential organizations have a responsibility to provide proper training and development.

In Newark, United Way of Greater Newark used this opportune moment to leverage funding raised through the COVID-19 fund to begin a project to train youth development professionals in mental health first aid. This project, which also includes a learning community, supported a local program through the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. The professionals who were trained became a part of the Out-of-School Time program. The Boys and Girls Club now offers its participants access to mental health clinicians, services to address mental health issues, and wellness activities to promote resilience.

This type of program is only possible with private funding, but all Out-of-School Time programs should have access to the resources needed to provide this for students — especially in a post-pandemic world.

In addition, youth development professionals must be provided Mental Health First Aid training and professional development, provided by organizations such as the United Way and the New Jersey School-Age Child Care Coalition. That’s why we’re calling on foundations and the government to invest in more public-private partnerships to address this critical public health issue for our students.

Catherine Wilson is the president and CEO of United Way of Greater Newark.

Ebony Grace is the CEO of the New Jersey School-Age Child Care Coalition.