Youth mental health crisis grows in North Carolina


Children in Mecklenburg County continue to face challenges relating to mental health, poverty and educational outcomes, according to NC Child, a nonprofit that advances public policies for children.

At a recent event in Charlotte, Erica Palmer Smith, executive director of NC Child, and Neil Harrington, research director at NC Child, said addressing those issues has become more complicated in recent years. 

Here are some of the data they shared, citing a variety of state and national sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prenatal care

More moms are getting prenatal care in Mecklenburg County, but that doesn’t always translate to better birth outcomes.

In 2021, about 71% of Mecklenburg moms got prenatal care, up from 61% in 2019, Harrington said, adding that access levels were similar for all races.

Still, about 15% of Black babies born in 2021 had low birth weights, compared to 9.5% of all babies born in Mecklenburg County. 

Harrington said other factors, such as housing, food insecurity and poverty, can also impact birth outcomes.

Mental health

Youth mental health has become a growing concern in Mecklenburg County, and more children are dying of suicide — the leading cause of death among North Carolina children ages 10 to 14.

In Mecklenburg County, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among children under 18, exceeded only by homicides.

Harrington says the youth suicide rate reflects a growing mental health crisis in North Carolina. 

Between 2016 and 2020, the state saw a 53% increase in the number of children ages 3 to 17 who were diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to Harrington. 

Palmer Smith said the cause is unclear, but she emphasized ways to address the growing youth mental health crisis.  Among them, she said, is ensuring that teachers and childcare providers have appropriate resources and making mental health professionals available in schools.

Poverty

The percentage of children living in poverty has decreased in Mecklenburg County, Harrington said. 

Just over a third now live in low-income households — those making less than 200% of the federal poverty level. (In Mecklenburg County that was about $55,000 in 2022 for a family of four.)

Black and Latino children are more likely than their white counterparts to live in poverty. 

Harrington says more federal support can reduce child poverty in North Carolina, In 2021, he said, increased federal aid lifted roughly 270,000 North Carolina children out of poverty.  

Education

Education outcomes declined in Mecklenburg County during the pandemic.

The share of third graders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools who score proficient or above in reading fell 14 percentage points since Covid arrived, Harrington said.  That decline was more than twice the state average, he said.

Fewer than half of Mecklenburg third graders score proficient in reading.

Third-grade reading scores, Harrington said, are a key indicator of lifelong literacy.

North Carolina’s childcare crisis

The cost of childcare has become increasingly inaccessible in recent years, adding to what many are calling a “childcare crisis” in the state. 

Harrington said the rising price of childcare is outpacing other goods, such as housing and groceries.

The cost of childcare has more than doubled since 2000, he said, on average costing more than in-state tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

In 2022, the annual cost of childcare in North Carolina averaged about $12,000, Harrington said.

Each year in North Carolina, parents lose about $3.5 billion in wages because they can’t find childcare, he said.



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