BOSTON — While children were spared the worst health effects of COVID-19, their mental health was a different story.

Lockdowns, school closings and restrictions on social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, coupled with a lack of access to in-person services, exacerbated a mental health treatment gap for children, according to medical experts. Low-income and minority children were disproportionately affected.

On Beacon Hill, policymakers are weighing how to improve mental health screenings and expand services for youths to address what some expect to be a "tsunami" of mental health issues in coming years.

One proposal, filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, would create an advisory council to improve behavioral programs and intervention in schools. A state-run technical assistance center would help districts develop plans to respond to students in crisis.

Decker said a shortage of beds in mental health units means young people often end up "boarding" in emergency rooms while waiting for services.

"We're not meeting the needs of our children with the services we have available," she told members of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Recovery on Wednesday.

A proposal filed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, would require schools to develop suicide prevention and intervention plans to respond to students in crisis. She cited federal data showing suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24.

"It is my hope that by having a schoolwide system of developed, thoughtful and comprehensive policies, we can reduce the number of young people who commit suicide," Lovely told the panel.

Another bill, filed by Rep. John Velis, D-Boston, would expand the list of absences excused by public schools to include "behavioral health concerns."

Recent studies support claims that mental health issues are growing among children even as the pandemic subsides.

More than 20% of teen hospitalizations between Jan. 1 and March 31 were for psychiatric emergencies, not COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alice Cohen, a social worker for Cambridge public schools, said the state was failing its children on mental health before the pandemic, but 15 months of stay-at-home orders and school shutdowns have worsened the situation.

"We are seeing an alarming increase in young people reporting anxiety, depression and self-harm," she told the committee. "We have a lot of healing to do, and we need to treat the impact of this isolation."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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