Anxiety and depression among children across the country increased significantly during the pandemic, and even more so among children in Oregon, according to a study out Monday from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The foundation is a national charitable organization that releases new information about child welfare through an annual report called Kids Count Data Book. Its newest edition, released Monday, outlines and ranks children’s wellness across 16 factors by state.
The report uses data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, a survey conducted by the U.S Census Bureau.
According to the report, the number of children reported to have anxiety and depression increased between 2016 and 2020 by 26% nationally, with 1.5 million more children with anxiety and depression in 2020 than 2016.
In Oregon, the increase is even higher. In 2016, an estimated 11.5% of children had anxiety or depression. This increased by 40% in 2020 to 16.1%.
The U.S Office of the Surgeon General is calling it a “mental health pandemic.”
The foundation’s report measures children’s wellness in four broad categories: economic well-being, health, education, and family and community.
In overall rankings, Oregon is ranked 26th best in children’s wellness, and the neighboring states of Washington and Idaho, ranked 15th and 18th.
Oregon is ranked 30th in economic well-being, 41st in education, 12th in health, and 18th in family and community.
County-specific data pinpoints areas in need of support
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted children’s mental health, according to Jenifer Wagley, executive director of Our Children Oregon, a children’s advocacy organization.
In addition to the four categories covered by the Kids Count report, Our Children Oregon’s data introduces a fifth area of data regarding the impacts of climate change on children’s wellbeing.
It looks at climate-related data such as wildfire risk, drought intensity and days of extreme heat.
Its data also digs into factors regarding the juvenile justice system, children in foster care and child-care access.
Our Children Oregon’s data shows where children are not getting needed support around the state, especially in rural areas such as Wheeler County. There, over a quarter of children lived in poverty and fewer than half of high schoolers graduated on time in 2019-2020.
Disparities in mental health
The reports from both Our Children Oregon and the Casey Foundation show disparities among children in marginalized groups.
Statewide data shows Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander children consistently fall under state averages for wellness metrics, and they are disproportionately represented in data around victims of abuse, experiencing foster care, and referrals to the juvenile justice system.
Oregon sixth-graders with gender diverse or multiple gender identities also reported lower levels of feeling safe or that they belonged in school.
Nationally, people ages 3 to 17 who identify as American Indian or Native Alaskan, white, or of two or more races were above the national average for experiencing anxiety and depression.
The percentage of people ages 13 to 24 attempting suicide also differed across ethnicity and sexual orientation nationally.
On average, 9% of high schoolers attempted suicide in 2019, but 25% of all American Indian and Native Alaskan teens attempted suicide. The percentage was also greater for gay, lesbian and bisexual teens at 23% versus 6% of all heterosexual students.
The pandemic disrupted much of the data collection for these studies.
On a state level, five factors are missing data because that data would have from the Student Health Survey, which doesn’t have results from before 2020.
The Casey Foundation and Our Children Oregon used different metrics to assess the state of children’s mental health. The Casey Foundation measured wellness based on children’s anxiety and depression diagnoses, and Our Children Oregon measured it based on children’s access to mental healthcare.
While this data is helpful, it does not capture the full scope of mental health challenges young people face, Wagley said.
Even so, Wagley said, the data can inform future policies for Oregon’s children, specifically around literacy rates, mental health care and economic well-being.
To address mental health, the Casey Foundation recommends improvements in three areas: prioritizing children’s basic needs; providing increased access to mental health care where and when it’s needed; and bolstering child mental health care with their cultural identities and experiences in mind.
To reduce child poverty, Wagley hopes to maintain the child tax credit that the American Rescue Plan expanded in 2021.
Our Children Oregon’s data also provides information on who needs the most support in increasing reading proficiency and literacy rates across location, race and ethnicity.
Wagley said this data helps to target resources to people who need it the most.
“When we act together, all children can thrive, but we have to address the systemic racial and geographic disparities as we do so to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and live their best life.”