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

Gov. Kathy Hochul addressed teen mental health issues at a summit on June 15, 2023. New York state Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie Sullivan is at left.
Don Pollard
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul addressed teen mental health issues at a summit on June 15, 2023. New York state Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie Sullivan is at left.

In the current state budget, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature invested $1 billion into mental health services, with part of that money earmarked for services specifically for teens. 

Many teenage New Yorkers are struggling more with their mental health since the pandemic. Health leaders, including the U.S. surgeon general, say a recent spike in such 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 blamed 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 15.

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

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

She said that according to the Centers for Disease Control, 42% of high school students feel persistently sad or hopeless, and 22% say they have considered suicide. The numbers are even higher among LGBTQ youths.

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

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

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

She said 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 acknowledged, though, that there is a severe shortage of qualified therapists to meet the need. Sullivan said 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 Sullivan, who added 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 said 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 said 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 the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.