‘911 moment’: Biden’s health secretary hears stories of children’s mental health challenges at Delaware forum

More than 40% of children report struggles with persistent sadness and desperation. Doctors, patients, parents, and politicians urged more services.

One person speaks into a microphone as two other people seated on the panel are turned towards them to listen.

From left, high school student Andrew Celio discusses his mental health struggles as U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xaxiera Becerra listen. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester didn’t hold back Monday after hosting President Biden’s top health official at a forum in Delaware to address the mental health challenges facing children in America.

“This is a 911 moment,’’ Blunt Rochester declared afterward, saying she was going “off-script” in calling an emergency to highlight the crisis facing kids during the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our young people need us to step up and step up in a different way,’’ the Democratic congresswoman said. “Obviously, we’ve been doing things, but we’ve heard in some cases the needle has moved backwards. So today is about recommitting to this charge. Today is about saying we want to do things differently.”

U.S. Rep Lisa Blunt Rochester speaks into a microphone. On the right, Health Secretary Becerra listens.
U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester declares that it’s a “9/11 moment” for children while Cabinet Health Secretary Xavier Becerra listens. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Blunt Rochester recalled writing a poem she titled “Teenager” about 45 years ago.

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“I remember what it felt like be a teenager pre-social media, pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, us witnessing a murder in front of our eyes,’’ she said. “Bullying. Cyber bullying. All of these things didn’t exist then and I knew how hard it was.”

Rochester had read the poem during the roundtable discussion at a former du Pont family estate on the grounds of the Nemours Children’s Hospital near Wilmington. She shared it with the parents, patients, policymakers, doctors, and politicians who discussed what has been accomplished in Delaware and what still needs to be done.

The stories revolved around the fact that more than two in five U.S. kids report struggles with persistent sadness and hopelessness, and that too many don’t have access to counseling.

Delaware has made some strides, and last year enacted a law that increased mental health supports in elementary schools. But all acknowledged that there’s not enough psychiatrists, psychologists and treatment centers for children in need.

Also sitting in was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra,  who visited Delaware as part of a national tour to promote stronger mental health.

The panel also heard from Erin Joseph of the rural town of Laurel in Sussex County. She’s a former special education teacher and says her two children, ages 8 and 16, are dealing with emotional issues.

She lamented that the nearest in-patient treatment center is a 90-minute drive from her home.

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“There is a little bit of mental health care desert that we need to address and we need to have some access,’’ Joseph told WHYY News after the session. “I’m here to advocate for that, as well as the school system’s becoming more understanding as well.”

Joseph said services “are accessible, but utilizing them appropriately has been somewhat of a fight as far as the school systems are concerned. So there have been some times when we’ve needed additional supports or the supports that have been provided are not being appropriately used.”

Becerra, who was California’s attorney general before Biden put him in the Cabinet, said afterward that the president is committed to making mental health as much of a priority as physical health. He said the administration has committed billions of dollars toward addressing needs for people of all ages, and plans to allocate billions more.

“Let’s get rid of this stigma,’’ Becerra said during brief remarks after the roundtable talk. “Let’s get rid of this sense of pessimism. Let us recognize that from the top down, we have people who want to make a difference.”

One initiative was launched last month. It’s the nationwide mental health crisis hotline — 9-8-8.

“If you think you’re one of those who need help and you want to make that call, we will be there,’’ Becerra said.

A view of a roundtable discussion.
The roundtable included health professionals, patients, parents and politicians. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Before the roundtable, Becerra also participated in a discussion at Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington about improving the health care system through partnerships with the National Health Corps and Public Allies. Both groups have members doing non-clinical work at Westside, which services a primarily low-income Latino population at its Wilmington clinic.

Becerra said Westside, which has a handful of clinics in Delaware, is a model for innovative care.

“Community health centers are critical, so anything we can do to make sure they’re better staffed – we want to do,” Becerra said.

Editor’s note: A previous version quoted U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester referring to the situation as a “9/11” moment. She was referring to 911, not the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. 

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