Anxiety and depression have weighed on Alabama’s kids, a holdover from the first days of the pandemic when COVID forced schoolchildren out of classrooms and into more isolated environments.
From 2016 to 2020, the percentage of Alabama children ages 3 to 17 who were diagnosed with anxiety or depression by a healthcare provider rose by 7.3%, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s National KIDS COUNT Data Book, which ranked Alabama 46th in child well-being.
Rhonda Mann, interim executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, said Alabama’s increase was not nearly as high as the national average. Nationally, the number was around 26%, she said.
VOICES is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s state grantee.
Mann said the rise in those numbers came from the beginning of COVID — before even a lot of turmoil really affected many children. Kids could no longer learn or socialize in environments they are used to, she said.
“Just the chaos and the uncertainty of what was going to happen and when and for how long,” she said. “I think all that added to the stress. And we may be seeing that show up in health outcomes for a long time to come.”
Parents and caregivers were also affected. They now had to work from home and try and be teachers. When asked whether a lack of access to mental health care might have affected those numbers, Mann said it may play a part: The state data book showed that Alabama had a rate of 923 people to one health care provider.
Those in rural communities are likely to have a harder time getting care, she said. And those who need specialized care are likely to face issues with accessibility and affordability.
Mann said she’s happy to see Alabama legislators committed to putting mental health professionals in all districts. “I think that’s a really good first step,” she said.
‘Two different stories to a data report’
The Data Book uses 16 indicators from four “domains” (economic well-being, education, health and family and community factors) to determine its rankings.
While Alabama has remained near the bottom of the rankings, the state has improved in many of its indicators, Mann said.
“And, so, what I want to say is there are two different stories to a data report,” she said. “Every year, I say this and try to point this out. Our overall ranking only tells us how we’re compared to other states. And so we have constantly ranked in the bottom 10. Certainly not where we’d like to be, but it doesn’t speak to whether or not we’re actually improving on any of the indicators.”
Alabama has the No. 1 indicator in the nation for high school students not graduating on time at 8%. Alabama was also in the top five nationally for the percentage of children without health insurance, at 3%. In other words, the majority of states had more children without health insurance.
The state ranked 19th for children who live in households with a high housing-cost burden, which means families spending more than 30% of their pre-tax income on rent or mortgage, according to Mann. Mann said they are proud of their ranking, but she wants to see improvement.
“Obviously, this is a family indicator. If you’re spending 30% pre tax on just your rent, that’s only leaving 70% for everything else,” Mann said. “And, that would be pre-tax dollars, so, even less than that. Right now, with gas prices still high, food costs are still high — that makes trying to make ends meet and paying for everything else a struggle for a lot of families.”
In terms of overall ranking, Mann said that she thinks Alabama’s highest-ever ranking was 44th.
The map in the Data Book shows that the lowest ranked states tend to cluster in the South. Mann said COVID set a lot of Alabama’s, and the South’s, progress, back about two years.
“I don’t know if it is the funding, the type of programs, the challenges that we have, if it’s the more rural areas. I think it’s just a combination of a lot of things that just make it difficult,” Mann said. “But, you know, doesn’t mean that we’re not trying. We are certainly working hard to try to address the issues facing our children.”
Jemma Stephenson is the children and education reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-261-1569.