Report: Behavioral and emotional issues on the rise among Vt. children

Vermont children ages 3-8 are experiencing anxiety and depression and acting out.
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 6:07 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 at 9:12 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont children ages 3-8 are experiencing anxiety and depression, causing them to act out, according to an annual state child welfare report.

The Building Bright Futures’ State of Vermont’s Children report says that nationwide, kids that age experiencing problems remained at 8% from 2016 to 2021.

So why did Vermont’s numbers jump from nearly 9% to nearly 14% in just two years? Cheryle Wilcox with the Department of Mental Health said last year there was an uptick of children in crisis services, from 198 to 262. While every behavioral and mental health instance is unique, experts agree the pandemic has played a role.

“Just like adults, it was challenging for us. And that is even felt higher by young children who just don’t have aren’t out with other people and experiencing being in the world and interacting with other people,” said Wilcox.

She says a staffing crisis plagues the state’s mental health system, with over 1,000 vacancies in the workforce, including school interventionists and clinicians at state facilities.

“It just makes it harder to get in to do more prevention work. And so then we’re seeing children who are having more increased challenges and increased behaviors,” said Wilcox.

“The challenges are not behind us yet, but I also want everyone to consider that kids are resilient, right, families are resilient. We are learning more and more about how to cultivate that resiliency,” said Dr. Jeremiah Dickerson, a child psychiatrist with the University of Vermont Medical Center.

He says Vermont is open to talking about mental health topics and wonders if that’s why the state’s numbers surpass those of the country. He also agrees that there’s an increasing trend of kids needing mental health services, especially due to specific rural challenges like isolation and access to services.

John Bratko is the new principal of Bristol Elementary School, which, like many schools across the state, has experienced instances of students having behavioral and emotional challenges in recent years. Through November of last year, 84% of students had none or just one reported outburst; 5% of the student body had six or more outbursts. He says a large focus of education, especially post-COVID, is developing trauma-informed practices and supporting students’ social-emotional well-being,

“Adapting and saying like how do we move to a more proactive mindset, like how do we identify mental health before it escalates to that level? And I think that Bright Futures report focusing on the younger ages is where you start, even academically,” said Bratko.

He adds there’s no cookie-cutter way to address each situation and the school has intervention and support.

“Not only do we need to support the child at school, but we need to support them when they go home. And how do we do that effectively without being the parents because we’re not the parents, but we have resources,” he said.

Vermont mental health officials say there are continuing conversations in the Statehouse around supporting school-based services. There’s also funding to help retain the mental health staff that is present, and a state workgroup focused on recruiting. As of October, there were 1,077 staffing vacancies out of nearly 6,000 positions; that’s a vacancy rate of 18%.

Wilcox says the intensity of the work and the pandemic can get exhausting for employees who switch work.

“We are focusing on how we retain folks, we got funding out the door to help with some retention. And then we’ve also been focused through a workgroup, which is a whole other section of work on how to recruit and retain within Human Services because it’s an incredibly rewarding career and people are really dedicated to the work. Yeah, but it’s also challenging,” she said.

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