Meeting the moment on children’s mental health: Recommendations for federal policy

depressed teen with phone
Editor's note:

This white paper is part of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy, which is a partnership between Economic Studies at Brookings and the University of Southern California Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. The Initiative aims to inform the national health care debate with rigorous, evidence-based analysis leading to practical recommendations using the collaborative strengths of USC and Brookings. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from The Commonwealth Fund.

The year 2022 brought increased awareness and concern to the mental health crisis among children and adolescents in the United States. While this year’s urgency is directly linked to the social and physical disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence we reviewed suggests that the emergence of the current crisis in children’s mental health pre-dates the pandemic by a decade. There is therefore a new sense of urgency to address mental illness in children and youth.

The President, members of Congress from both political parties, governors, and mayors have all come to recognize that addressing the mental health needs of American children requires mobilizing all levels of government, civil society, and our community institutions. In this paper, our focus is on actions that can be taken by the federal government. The President, through a set of proposals made this year, has sought to draw attention to measures that would holistically address mental health in children. Congress has proposed several bipartisan efforts to expand services and intervene early to promote mental health in children.

In this paper, we clarify the nature and potential sources of the current problem of mental illnesses in children and consider how we might effectively apply the policy tools of the federal government to address this crisis. Our proposals include targeting grant resources to low-income schools, leveraging Medicaid in coordination with grant funding to advance sustainably financed school services, integrating behavioral health into pediatric settings, and strengthening behavioral health screening and treatment under Medicaid’s Early and Periodic Screening Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) program.

Read the full white paper here.

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The authors thank Sherry Glied, John O’Brien, and Nathaniel Counts for their substantive contributions to this paper. They also thank Vani Agarwal for excellent research assistance and Caitlin Rowley for her assistance with project oversight and editorial support.


    Vikki Wachino is an advisory board member of Brace Health. The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. Other than the aforementioned, the authors are not currently an officer, director, or board member of any organization with a financial or political interest in this article.