‘The kids are not OK’: Boston officials unveil new mental health initiative

The city of Boston unveiled a report on Wednesday detailing increasing mental health issues among city residents — particularly youth — as well as a $21 million initiative to improve services over the next five years.

“Our youth are in crisis,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “Many young people in Boston are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. … An increasing number of high school students have considered and even planned suicide.”

From 2015 to 2021, the percentage of public high school students reporting persistent sadness increased from 26% to almost 44%, according to the report. There were larger increases among teen girls, and among Latinx and LGBTQ+ students.

The percentage of Boston adults reporting persistent sadness rose from 21% to 27% during the same time period. Those least likely to report persistent sadness were foreign-born adults who have lived in the US for less than a decade.

The report also found hospital emergency department visits for mental health declining, attributing the change to ripple effects from the pandemic. From 2015 to 2021, Black residents had a 74% higher age-adjusted rate of emergency department visits for any mental health disorder compared to white residents.

Among Boston’s neighborhoods, the South End experienced the highest rate of mental health-related emergency department visits in 2021. The neighborhood still topped the list when eliminating substance use emergency department visits from the data.

The first-of-its-kind report focuses on the mental health of the city’s residents used data from several sources including surveys to Boston Public School students, data from the city’s Public Health Commission and the state Department of Public Health, hospital admission information and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Boston officials will spend $21 million over the next five years to increase mental health supports in city schools and train more behavioral health clinicians. The initiative is funded through federal grants, mostly from the pandemic aid known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

“The past several years have been difficult for all of us, and that’s especially true for our young
people,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. “That’s why it is so important for us to make life saving investments now, to support Boston families and make sure our youth get the high-quality care they need.”

Five million dollars will be divided equally between UMass Boston and Franciscan Children’s Hospital to train clinicians and provide mental health services in schools. Close to $6 million will fund a collaboration among Boston Public Schools, UMass Boston, Boston University, Brown University, and community partners called “Project PROVIDE.” The project will help train psychology and social work students to serve an expected 46,000 Boston Public School youth over five years.

“The kids are not OK,” said University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suarez-Orozco. “We need to step up and get in front of a once in a century set of formations that have created such despair, such a sense of hopelessness.”