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New York State leaders say they are making gains on addressing teen mental health

A woman in a white blouse stands behind a lectern, raising her hand for emphasis.
Don Pollard
Governor Kathy Hochul hosts the New York State Youth Mental Health Summit June 15, 2023.

Many teenage New Yorkers are struggling more with their mental health since the pandemic.

Governor Kathy Hochul and the legislature invested a billion dollars into mental health services in the current state budget.

Part of that money is earmarked for services specifically for teenagers. Health leaders, including the U.S. surgeon general, say a recent spike in mental health challenges among young people has had a “devastating” effect.

The governor spoke at a summit on Youth Mental Health in June. It followed a three-month-long listening tour hosted by Hochul and led by a team of mental health experts where over 200 youths spoke and shared their struggles. The governor blames COVID pandemic-related lockdowns and the influence of social media for the increase.

“Teenagers are facing a crisis like never seen before in the history of this country,” Hochul said on June 15th.

She says problems like binge drinking, drunk driving, and smoking have been overtaken by anxiety, depression, and suicide.

“If you look at the statistics, they're absolutely staggering, and it's just a reminder that we're failing our children,” the governor said.

She says that according to the CDC, 42 percent of high school students feel persistently sad or hopeless. 22 percent say they have considered suicide.

The numbers are even higher among LGBTQ youth.

This year’s state budget includes $10 million dollars in grants to suicide prevention programs targeting high-risk youths, and a $20 million dollar expansion of mental health services in schools by increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for school-based mental health clinics.

The commissioner of the state’s Office of Mental Health, Dr. Ann Marie Sullivan, says the goal is to have a mental health clinic in every school in the state. Speaking to public television’s New York Now, she says 1,000 exist now, and another 200 to 300 are in the works.

“They can talk to a mental health professional,” Sullvian said. “Youth can get some services right there in the school in a non stigmatizing way.”

She says there is also a 24-hour counseling and crisis line, reached by calling or texting 988.

Those who need more care are referred to a hospital, a clinic or a therapist.

She acknowledges, though, that there is a severe shortage of qualified therapists to meet the need. Sullivan says her agency is working with schools to encourage career paths in mental health treatment.

“We've already been talking to some high schools to let us come in and speak with them, and community colleges,” said the commissioner ,who said the aim is to get to those who are going into social work, nursing or medicine, before they launch their careers.

“It's engaging people,” she said.

She says the state also offers student loan repayments to doctors who want to specialize in psychiatry, and to nurse practitioners who want to work in the mental health field. Sullivan says this year’s budget also includes money for partial loan repayments for psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors, as long as they agree to work in a public health clinic for a period of time.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.