Data shows mental health, education declines for Hoosier kids

According to the Indiana Youth Institute, the kids are not alright.

The Hoosier State continues to lag behind its peers when it comes to child wellbeing, rank 28th overall – just one place ahead of its ranking last year. But it has made strides in reducing the number of foster children in the state.

“Just like we keep stats for all of our basketball games… we also keep track of the data on child wellbeing,” said Tami Silverman, the president and CEO of Indiana Youth Institute. “We’re driven by the understanding that Indiana is a great place to be a kid – it certainly was for me. But it is not yet that way for all kids.”

The organization annually releases its Kids Count Data Book, documenting child well-being across metrics that include: family and community, health, economy and education. Across the six editions, Indiana’s rank has barely budged.

The 2023 report details mental health challenges for youth, shortages of child care providers and learning barriers for Hoosier kids.

Cost, access barriers to health care services

Whether primary care, dental care or mental health care – the vast majority of Indiana counties have a shortage. Half of parents who forego care told surveyors that they had trouble accessing an appointment while one-third said cost was the primary concern.

Taylor Johnson, the policy and data advocacy manager for the Indiana Youth Institute, noted that even schools fell short in support staff.

Youth suicidal idea over time. (From the Indiana Youth Institute 2023 Kids Count Data Book)

“(Reported) ratios show that children in Indiana schools especially do not have access to social workers and psychologists who can provide valuable resources to process and cope with the problems that many of our students are facing throughout the state,” Johnson said. “We have four-and-a-half items more students per psychologist than the recommended amount and 11 times more students per social worker.”

Hoosier students reported increasingly high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Yet the state, all of which is considered a mental health care desert, doesn’t have many resources for kids.

“We know that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or income, may experience a variety of mental health issues. However, the data does show that certain groups – particularly our Black, Hispanic and multiracial students – have poor mental health compared to that of their peers,” Johnson said.

One in four Hoosier students seriously contemplated suicide while one in five made a plan. In total, one in nine students attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

“All of us know that these statistics are not simply percentages on a slide or numbers in a report – they represent our kids, our students, our communities,” Johnson said. “Many of these children, especially those who are unable to find the care they need, the answer in their minds… is suicide.”

The numbers are even worse for LGBTQ youth.

For gay, lesbian or bisexual youth, nearly two-thirds had seriously considered suicide while more than half had made a plan. One in five of those students attempted suicide.

The organization analyzed data from the Department of Health, which didn’t isolate suicidal ideation by gender identity, but other research shows that suicidal ideation and attempts are even higher among transgender youth – especially those whose households or communities aren’t affirming.

“These are wide and concerning gaps. It’s clear that many of our students in Indiana are experiencing declining mental health and suicidal thoughts… students who are Black, Hispanic, multitracial (or) belong to the LGBTQ community are experiencing this issue at much higher rates,” Johnson said.

Improvements for Hoosier youth

The report highlighted one area of ​​improvement for Hoosiers kids: foster children. Since 2018, the number of children in foster care has decreased by 40%, or 13,600 children.

Taylor Johnson, with the Indiana Youth Institute, presents data in the Indiana Senate Chamber. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Bri Youn, the data and research manager for the Indiana Youth Institute, noted that children of color – including Black and multiracial children – were disproportionately represented among foster youth.

“Our work and progress in this area as a state is certainly a cause for acknowledgment, but we cannot become complacent in our efforts,” she said. “Research continues to show that children succeed when they are reunited with their families but only if the families have access to sufficient services and help to enable them to become better parents.”

Additionally, fewer children lived in poverty and fewer teen births occurred. The number of children without health insurance also decreased, as did the number of children living in households with employment instability.

What does it mean for the General Assembly?

Although the legislative session just passed the halfway point, Silverman noted his organization’s year-round efforts, offering the institute as a resource for drafting legislation or supplementing their knowledge.

One area that has received a lot of attention this session is mental health, which senators named as one of their own priority issues. Senate Bill 1 continues to advance through the process but doesn’t yet have a price tag.

“We are excited to see all of the focus on mental health. The data is very, very clear that our kids – even going into the pandemic – that clinical depression and anxiety were tremendous issues for our kids,” Silverman said.

When asked about child care, which the report highlighted, she emphasized the state’s capacity issues. While the current budget proposal expands the eligibility of the child care subsidies, advocates say it isn’t enough.

“We have working families who have to make tough decisions – do they not take a job? Do they step away from a job because of the lack of access?,” Silverman said. “We need to think about how we can provide more quality care for our kids.”

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