Las Vegas, Nev. – In response to widespread challenges in students’ mental and behavioral health during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the spike in student suicides, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is calling on the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education to launch a coordinated, all-of-government response. In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Cortez Masto highlights the severe stress and trauma experienced by students during a year of remote school and isolation and urges the agencies to launch an unprecedented collaboration to help kids recover.
“The impending mental and behavioral health hurdles that lie before us as kids grapple with the trauma of the pandemic will be the next phase of this public health crisis, and it must be our top focus,” writes Cortez Masto. “I write today to ask for a bold, coordinated all-of-government response to help kids recover from these pandemic impacts and avert the long-term consequences that come with associated traumas, ranging from learning loss to self-harm and incarceration.”
In her letter, Cortez Masto specifically highlights how a confluence of factors have left students in an untenable position – food insecurity has left an estimated 13 million kids without enough food to eat and nearly one third of renters with children are behind on rent.
“Most concerning, however, is the toll on kids’ health and socioemotional wellbeing,” writes Cortez Masto. “Between March and October of 2020, the rate of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits was 44 percent higher than the corresponding period in 2019. In my state of Nevada, the Clark County School District saw 18 suicides over the course of remote learning in 2020, doubling the incidents in all of the previous school year, and earning national attention.”
Cortez Masto worked in the Senate to help pass the historic American Rescue Plan and has championed its unprecedented level of support to schools. In her letter, she notes “The challenge that lies ahead is ensuring that schools are able to effectively leverage every last dollar and flexibility made available under the American Rescue Plan. Not all schools and districts are equipped to work on these complex mental and behavioral health issues and meet the unique needs of today’s students. Many suffer from drastic shortages of counselors, social workers, and psychologists to work with students even under normal circumstances. They will need robust assistance from community-based service providers and the health care community.”
Cortez Masto has met with students in Nevada who have shared their concerns about the impact that the pandemic has had on their mental health. She is urging the Departments of HHS and Education to work collaboratively and develop resources and guidelines to aid schools in formulating reopening frameworks that will best equip them to support returning students, calling specifically for:
- the development of trauma-informed guidelines for educators welcoming students back to school and the community-based providers serving them;
- the Administration for Children and Families to support schools looking to develop best practices for parents and connect families in need with wraparound services available in the local community;
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help to identify the community-based providers who can best support the ongoing mental and behavioral health needs of students and facilitate collaborations between schools and these providers;
- the Office of Safe and Healthy Students to provide resources to guide best practices in safe, welcoming school environments, including professional development for educators, evidence-based instructional practices, mental health screening tools, and best practices to build partnerships between schools and community-based organizations;
- additional resources to help respond to increases in students experiencing homelessness and poverty and a larger volume of highly mobile students.
Cortez Masto is a leader in the Senate advocating for bipartisan solutions to mental health crises, leading legislation to specifically respond to challenges experienced by students and other groups experiencing heightened challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has introduced sweeping legislation to give Nevada communities the support they need to deliver comprehensive behavioral health services and to improve the emergency response to mental health challenges with mobile crisis response teams. The first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, Cortez Masto has consistently advocated for mental health equity and access for communities of color, and has introduced legislation to establish July as BIPOC Mental Health Awareness month. During Cortez Masto’s meeting with then-HHS nominee Becerra, she specifically highlighted mental and behavioral health as a top priority for her and the state of Nevada.