Phillip Fisher wasn’t surprised that surveys of families and their children throughout the pandemic have revealed many struggled to pay for basic needs like food, housing, utilities and pediatric care.
“What surprised us was the magnitude,” said Fisher, a University of Oregon psychology professor who heads the Center for Translational Neuroscience, which has been conducting the pandemic surveys, starting in April 2020. He was a panelist for a July NCSL webinar on children’s mental health and learning during the pandemic.
At the height of the pandemic, 1 in 3 families included in the survey reported they couldn’t afford one or more of their basic needs, he said.
At the height of the pandemic, 1 in 3 families surveyed by the University of Oregon reported they couldn’t afford one or more of their basic needs.
And some groups of people fared far worse.
“Black, Latinx and single-parent households, it’s actually double that number,” Fisher said. “So about 60% or slightly above were saying that they didn't have enough money for basic needs. And one of the things that was particularly noteworthy in our data among Black and Latinx households was how many families were reporting that they couldn’t make ends meet who before the pandemic were middle- and upper-income.”
Fisher noted the number of families they surveyed who are struggling to meet basic needs has dropped back to 1 in 4 on average. But, he added, “I just want to point out, 1 in 4 still represents millions of children in the U.S. whose families can’t pay for basic needs.”
This creates uncertainty and distress among adults, and their children feel the stress deeply, Fisher said.
He described a “chain reaction of hardship that starts with not having enough money that proves upsetting to adults, not surprisingly, and then the adults are passing that along to children.”
This creates what researchers call “toxic stress” in children that can hurt brain and biological development, Fisher said.
He said earlier this year, the University of Oregon’s neuroscience center also began surveying child care workers, both those in formal care settings and those caring for relatives or neighbors.
One-quarter of child care providers in the survey had at least one other job, Fisher said. He noted of Black and Latinx child care providers, more than 40% said providing care only accounts for half or less of their income.
“Again, just as we saw with parents, we see that the more hardships people are having, the more emotional distress they’re experiencing,” Fisher said. “And so when you think about how much we rely on the early childhood workforce to provide warm, nurturing, reliable care for children, but these are the circumstances that they’re facing, you have to wonder about whether we’re adequately providing what the workforce needs in order to do what they need to do.”
Aid Creates Stability
Fisher said tax credits and stimulus payments have been used by many families they surveyed to cover basic needs and catch up on missed utility, rent or mortgage payments. He lauded that kind of aid, saying it creates stability and predictability for families
He said state legislatures can help struggling families by using federal pandemic stimulus money to improve child care and to address the inequities made worse in the pandemic.
NCSL’s Autumn Rivera, a policy associate with the education program, described some of the ways state legislatures are addressing children’s mental health. Several states have enacted measures to deal with suicide prevention and intervention, expand school-based mental health programs, ensure more extensive training for teachers and staff, provide mental health screenings, and increase staffing ratios for mental health professionals in schools.
Sharon Hoover, a clinical psychologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health, which developed the SHAPE system, a resource-rich website to share laws, regulations and policies to create comprehensive school mental health systems.
Hoover said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports emergency department visits for children and adolescents with mental health issues are up as much as 31% since the pandemic, and about a quarter of parents are reporting that their children’s mental health is worse than it was pre-pandemic. On top of that, Hoover said, “Parents and educators, two of the most salient groups of adults in our young people’s lives, are also under tremendous stress.
“So given this well-documented impact of COVID on the well-being of our students, our families, our educators, where do we go from here?” she asked. “How do we address the anxiety, the fear, the loss, the inequities that have been exacerbated during COVID, while simultaneously fostering hope and resilience in our young people?”
Supporting Districts, Schools
Hoover said schools need comprehensive school mental health systems, as described in the SHAPE System. She said legislators can help districts by establishing a framework for districts to use. She noted that states such as Wisconsin and Colorado are supporting districts and schools in assessing the quality of their mental health systems and identifying needed improvements.
Hoover stressed the important role schools play in addressing mental health—in identifying students in need and offering services so students have ready access. She noted that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, research showed that 90% of students who had access to counseling in their schools completed it, while only 15% completed that care when it was not on school grounds.
She said schools must also ensure staff get support for their well-being.
The current huge influx of federal funding to deal with the pandemic creates a “historic opportunity to support the conditions of learning and address inequities in education,” Hoover said. She recommended a guide on leveraging federal COVID-19 relief funds that the National Center for School Mental Health helped put together, adding, “This work is more important than ever.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.