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Biden's health secretary, officials, discuss youth mental health crisis in Delaware. 'Our young people need us to step up.'

Philadelphia Inquirer - 8/1/2022

Aug. 2—Andrew Celio's mother had to hound the school to get the help her son needed.

Now a rising senior at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del., Celio struggled with his mental health through middle school. Getting help wasn't easy.

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The people he would normally turn to for support couldn't help. His school counselors didn't have the resources to spend time with him. Even some in his family didn't seem to understand what he was going through. "People get sad sometimes," they told him.

But he wasn't just "sad sometimes."

"It was really hard," Celio told a group of federal and state lawmakers at the Nemours Estate in Wilmington on Monday.

The teen shared his story during a roundtable discussion on youth mental health, part of U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra's National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health.

Also in the room were Delaware Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Lt. Gov Bethany Hall-Long, state officials, leadership of Nemours Children's Hospital, and area practitioners.

The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for youth mental health, which in December U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy elevated as a public health threat when he issued an advisory on the topic.

In the last year, one in five children in the United States had a diagnosable mental illness and one in five teenagers contemplated suicide, said Larry Moss, president and CEO of Nemours Children's Health. "Those are staggering and unheard of numbers," he said.

Participants talked about ways to ensure that mental health resources make their way to America's youth — particularly in schools.

Celio's experience is no surprise. Mental health staff have been scarce in Delaware schools, as they are in many states. For example, in 2021, about 86% of the state's elementary schools didn't employ a social worker.

Delaware state lawmakers passed a bill this spring that aims to reduce the ratio of the number of students per each psychologist and social worker in schools.

Delaware House Democratic Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst said her mother attempted suicide twice when she was growing up. Her personal experience taught her the importance of support for students and led her to advocate for more mental health providers inside schools, Longhurst said.

It's hard for students to learn when they are struggling emotionally, she said.

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Coons said he hopes the mental health spending in the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act that passed in June, which includes $500 million toward mental health services in schools, will improve access for students.

There are still immense challenges.

Delaware has very few bilingual mental health providers and some areas are mental health care "deserts" — with no residential treatment facilities for more than an hour drive away.

At a news conference after the roundtable, Rochester pointed to all the challenges that today's youth are facing. She said she remembers the social challenges of being a teenager — before social media, a pandemic, and cyberbullying.

"I knew how hard it was," the Delaware congresswoman said. "Our young people need us to step up."

Celio's mother did just that. She demanded again and again that her son receive counseling.

Eventually, Celio was connected with a therapist from an outside agency. He was able to see her in school — allowing him to never miss class. "She is the reason I'm here today," he said of the therapist.

"I can't imagine how many students and children would be impacted by having that therapist," Celio said. "My message to children like me is that it gets better."


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