The kids are (not really) all right.

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My first therapist was someone my parents picked, and I went because they made me, in a sweet if misguided attempt to make sure I had someone to talk to after they separated. The doctor was an elderly woman who analyzed my doodling and asked open-ended questions I didn’t want to answer. I stopped going after two sessions.

I tried therapy again a few years later and found a counselor I loved, who I saw regularly until I graduated from high school. In retrospect, this is great (everyone should have a therapist!) and not a big deal (everyone should have a therapist!), but back then it felt like a shameful secret. Therapy helped me, but needing that help made me feel like a weird screw-up. When I confessed this to my therapist, she told me I’d be surprised at how many of her clients were teenagers. 

This was before mental health became a national conversation, and I don’t think I believed her, but it’s obvious to me now that she was telling the truth. Kids have always needed help. We’re only just starting to figure out how to help them get it.

The Big Takeaway

Stories like mine are common and cruelly ironic. People often feel isolated in their battles with depression and anxiety, even though they’re never alone in the fight. This was true before COVID-19 (3.7 million adolescents had major depressive episodes in 2019 alone), but it’s even more ubiquitous in the wake of prolonged pandemic-related disruptions that left kids isolated, uncertain and often physically ill

It’s a nationwide problem. Lawmakers started to address it in 2020, when they introduced dozens of bills related to behavioral and health services in schools, including measures to implement mental health training for staff members and expand access to care

This is a stock photo, so this child is probably fine, and yet I am very concerned about her. #momproblems (Photo by Justin Paget/Getty Images)

But countless other bills languished. Take New Jersey, where legislators approved bills that bolstered behavioral health staffing, established grants for school-based wellness programs and expanded insurance coverage for mental health screenings, among other things. A number of related proposals died in session, including a measure to allow school staff to refer students to private providers and another to form a task force to consider improvements to existing mental health resources.

The need has only grown since then, advocates told lawmakers Monday during a Senate committee hearing, per the New Jersey Monitor. A former teacher said she’d attended funerals for three of her students in the past six months. One official said the state’s mobile health unit was dispatched a record-high 29,000 times last year, evidence that youth mental health is a “parallel pandemic.”

There are solutions that may help stem the tide, others said. One administrator recommended that the state formalize standards for school counselors to make sure their role is consistent across districts. A psychiatrist said state mental health programs would need a boost of about $70 million to adequately address rising rates of suicide attempts and substance abuse among minors, longstanding problems that grew worse during the pandemic.

This will probably be an ongoing discussion, bolstered by dedicated funding. Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal, unveiled last week, earmarks money from the American Rescue Plan for development of “student mental health and success initiatives.” It also proposes an increase in Medicaid rates for outpatient mental health treatment for children, which officials said could help increase access to services by bringing more providers to the state.

Access to treatment is also a hot topic in Louisiana, although it’s more about denying care to certain kids than about making it easier for everyone to obtain. Yep, another adult lawmaker is taking aim at transgender kids, this time via a bill that would prevent them from receiving gender-affirming care even if their parents approve of the treatment, the Louisiana Illuminator reported. 

It’s just really not that hard to understand. (Photo by John/Adobe Stock)

The Saving Adolescents From Experimentation, or SAFE, Act would ban a host of medical procedures for anyone under the age of 18 — but only for patients who hope a given procedure will “promote the development of feminizing or masculinizing features in the opposite sex.” Banned procedures include things like testicle implants, hair transplants, breast augmentation, liposuction and hormone therapy, which the bill defines as “gender transition procedures” that could be deemed illegal by the state depending on the specific patient.

In practice, this means a 17-year-old cisgender female who wants to appear more feminine could receive breast implants with parental consent, but a 17-year-old transgender female with parental consent and the exact same goal could be denied.

The proposal, introduced by Republican Rep. Gabe Firment, is the latest in a torrent of anti-trans bills under consideration nationwide. Most of those proposals were introduced under the guise of “protecting children,” despite a mountain of evidence that suggests they do little besides harm trans kids, a marginalized group that’s already more at risk for substance abuse, threats of violence and self-harm.

This is already a minefield for a lot of students, but sure, let’s make it worse. (Photo by Getty Images)

Firment introduced a similar version of the legislation last year but pulled it after widespread backlash to a slightly less-terrible bill that allowed minors to receive gender-affirming treatment only after receiving parental consent. It’s unclear why Firment thinks his measure will do better this year. He was scheduled to discuss it in an interview with the Illuminator, but didn’t answer the phone at the scheduled time or respond to multiple follow-up calls.

In his absence, we’ll turn to someone who did answer the phone: Pearl Ricks, executive director of Louisiana’s Reproductive Justice Action Collective, who dismissed the bill as a mean-spirited attack with no scientific basis or moral justification that’s likely to harm kids at a time they most need support.

“Of all the problems we have in Louisiana — education, students who live in poverty — I find it astounding that this is what some people are more concerned about,” said Ricks. “Over the last two years they’ve been through more than we could ever imagine, and to attack a certain group of them is just cruel.”

Think of the children: (New Mexico) New state agency aims to help families in child welfare casesAfter yet another school shooting, Kansas senators divided on proposal to mandate NRA gun safety course for studentsMaryland lawmakers advance proposal to protect kids from being coerced into providing false confessions to police

State of Our Democracy

I’m struck by the unintentional irony of this Missouri Independent story about an event where two former U.S. senators suggested that most of the country’s problems could be solved if we all had lunch with someone who holds different political views than we do. 

But once you’re at the table, former Sen. John Danforth added, don’t mention your political views.

…What? (Photo by Lucas/Adobe Stock)

“Take a Republican to lunch and don’t talk politics,” Danforth, a Republican, said Monday at a University of Missouri event. “Find someone who doesn’t agree with you, and treat that person as a human being.”

Danforth left Congress in 1995, long before the GOP’s lurch toward Trumpism. Still, he must know his advice rings hollow against the backdrop of his party’s push to harm transgender kids, strip women of their reproductive rights and whitewash American history, all policies that dabble in dehumanizing broad swaths of the population.

But in the spirit of bipartisanship, Democrat Claire McCaskill agreed with Danforth, saying that “demonizing the other side” has taken the place of “working together.” She’s not giving up on democracy, she said, even if it seems a little dicey at the moment.

“Why are those who demonize others so successful?” she asked.

McCaskill was referring mostly to Donald Trump, who discarded political courtesy in favor of continuously jeering at and making enemies of his opponents. But she could have also been referring to the hundreds of lawmakers across the country who are actively pushing divisive and restrictive legislation, all of it designed to disenfranchise political opponents and marginalized groups. A lot of people find it hard to rustle up respect for that. And that’s the real problem.

From the Newsrooms

One Last Thing

I am an Avid Potato Enthusiast, so imagine my sadness at learning that Dug the Spud, a 17.4-pound tuber recognized by Guinness World Records as the planet’s largest potato, is actually just some type of gourd

Dug’s provenance was revealed via DNA testing, because apparently the Guinness people take potatoes even more seriously than I do. The gourd’s growers were mostly undeterred, telling a news site in their native New Zealand that it was a fitting end to “a real roller-coaster of potato-rama.” They’re going to try to turn Dug into vodka. This entire story will live on forever in my heart.

Here it is, living in my heart. (Photo by Владимир Феофанов/Adobe Stock)

This edition of the Evening Wrap published on March 15, 2022. Subscribe here.

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