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Youth mental health is top of mind for voters

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Youth mental health is top of mind for voters

By Olivia Allen, strategy director at Children’s Funding Project.

Public opinion polling during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that voters feel intense concern about youth mental health and are willing to prioritize public investment in programs that support young people. In fact, 79 percent of voters consider using tax dollars to “provide youth mental health services to all children in their communities” a high or very high priority, according to a national poll that Children’s Funding Project commissioned with Children’s Funding Accelerator (our advocacy arm) and conducted by FM3 Research in August 2021. This presents a critical moment for advocates to connect the dots between after-school and summer programs and youth mental health to drive greater public investment in these programs.

Voters’ sense of urgency around a priority is key to motivating policy action. While a similar percentage of voters rank “providing youth mental health services” (79 percent) and “providing access to after-school and summer programs” (73 percent) as a high or very high priority, voters demonstrate greater urgency around youth mental health services—51 percent of voters rank youth mental health services as the highest possible priority (meaning they rank it as a 7 on a 1-7 scale of importance).

After-school and summer programs, with their strong grounding in youth development principles and a priority on building relationships with caring adults and peers, are uniquely positioned to support the mental health and social-and-emotional development of youth. Through social- and emotional-focused activities and targeted skill building, after-school programs can help build protective factors and healthy behaviors for all youth, including those who may have an unidentified mental health need.

If advocates can help policymakers and voters connect the dots between their concerns about youth mental health and the role that out-of-school-time programs can play in supporting youth mental health, they may be able to tap into this sense of urgency and drive policy action. For example, according to a recent survey of after-school and summer providers by Afterschool Alliance, 81 percent of programs report that they provide time for young people to talk with peers or staff members about their feelings or emotions and 50 percent report that they provide other social and emotional supports. (For a practical example of what this looks like, check out this use of the Summer Matters for All grant program in Vermont.)

Additionally, America After 3PM, the Afterschool Alliance’s annual survey, finds that parents recognize the important role that after-school programs play in supporting young people's overall well-being. An overwhelming majority of parents agree that after-school programs allow kids to engage with peers (85 percent), build positive relationships with mentors and caring adults (77 percent), and help young people avoid risky behaviors (75 percent).

Securing additional support from policymakers and the public will be crucial as providers continue to grapple with the challenges they have faced during the past two years. Among program providers, 77 percent report that they are concerned about their program’s long-term funding and future as a result of the pandemic, while 36 percent are concerned about having to close their program permanently, according to the Afterschool Alliance’s fall 2021 survey of providers. Additionally, staffing was a significant challenge for programs, with 74 percent of program providers reporting that it was somewhat or very difficult to hire staff, retain staff, or both during the fall.

Our August 2021 poll results show that voters recognize these struggles and want to support provider stability: 62 percent of voters see “stabilizing nonprofit and small business child care, preschool, and after-school programs [emphasis added] that struggled to stay open during the pandemic” as extremely or very important. Similarly, 61 percent of voters believe it is extremely or very important to combat “the shortage of qualified child care, preschool, and after-school staff [emphasis added] by increasing wages.” Equally importantly, nearly two-thirds of voters would pay $150 more per year in taxes if those taxes were dedicated to “programs and services to support the development of children of all ages” in their city or county.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, after-school and summer program providers find themselves working to secure or implement federal relief funding for their programs, and worrying about the sustainability of those funds. High voter support for programs that support youth mental health indicates that now is a moment of strong momentum to secure sustained investments in after-school and summer programs. The key will be to translate this support and voters’ urgency into concrete policy action in the coming months.

To find out how much federal COVID relief money your community has received to support after-school and summer programs, search our American Rescue Plan database.

For more information about the ways after-school and summer programs support youth mental health, check out these resources from the Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM report.

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