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(Updated 2/19) Advocates are calling for Arlington County to invest $2 million in additional programs to stop students from dying of drug overdoses.

The mother of an Arlington ninth grader who died of an apparent fentanyl overdose in September joined over 250 others on Wednesday to demand additional funding for free after-school programs. Organizers say a scarcity of accessible, interesting programming makes students more likely to fall into drug addiction.

“We as parents and members of this community ask you to invest in after-school programs,” organizer Janeth Valenzuela, co-founder of the Arlington Schools Hispanic Parents Association (ASHPA), told officials in attendance at Kenmore Middle School. “It is an investment in life, in a better future, in a different destiny for our children. We know from experience that affordable programs at the schools will help.”

Luz Rodríguez, the mother of Jorge Rodríguez, pleaded with Arlington County Board Vice-Chair Takis Karantonis and member Maureen Coffey, who were in attendance, to work to ensure that her son is the last child in Arlington to die from drugs.

“We must all work together to stop this terrible disease that is killing our children,” Rodríguez said in Spanish, which was translated for English speakers.

Karantonis pledged to enter this year’s budget negotiations “with a $2 million mindset.”

“If the price is $2 million, this is the funding that’s needed? Then let’s do it,” said the Board member, who in November carried a motion to increase funding for programs combating teen substance abuse.

Coffey begged off on pledging a specific amount but said she would “fight for significant and ongoing funding.”

School Board members Mary Kadera and Bethany Sutton were also present at the event.

The County Board voted 3-2 in November to set aside $750,000 to build up initiatives relating to drug use among young people. So far, the county has used this money to expand teen programming on the weekends, enhance juvenile case management and increase outreach about existing programs.

Last month, County Manager Mark Schwartz said the Department of Human Services had also hired two additional counselors, one at Washington-Liberty High School and one at Wakefield High School. Jorge Rodríguez attended Wakefield and was the second student at that school to die last year.

Two additional counselors were being onboarded in January to work at Yorktown High School and the Arlington Career Center.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) hosted listening sessions with hundreds Arlington high school students and parents, most of whom were people of color, before making its $2 million recommendation, per a media packet. The funds would allow 200 young people in underserved communities to attend three hours of free programming every day after school.

Students and parents expressed interest in soccer options beyond recreation, travel and school teams. Other areas of interest included art, cooking, tennis, film, photography and podcasting.

Schwartz said in January that the county was “working on” an expanded soccer program, which he expected to go live by late February, in addition to a newly expanded basketball program.

VOICE, alongside ASHPA and the Arlington branch of the NAACP, says it supports more substance abuse education and access to behavioral health professionals. Its media packet says Arlington lacks widespread, relevant education initiatives on this topic, while many students said that accessing counselors and behavioral health professionals is difficult.

For a Wakefield senior named Marina, the need for a better response to the opioid crisis is personal.

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Arlington 911 dispatcher at the county’s Emergency Communications Center, in 2021 (via Arlington County)

The next year will see some important steps forward as Arlington County looks to uncouple law enforcement from its response to homelessness and behavioral health crises.

In 2024, the county will implement new protocols and a call system to ensure people experiencing behavioral health crises — due to a mental illness, substance use disorder or disability — receive services rather than get arrested and jailed.

The coordinator of the forthcoming Marcus Alert system, Tiffany Jones, provided the update during an Arlington Committee of 100 forum last week, adding that more details will emerge during the implementation stage.

“The main purpose is to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity, accessibility to services and is treated with dignity and respect and given the proper services that they need to thrive,” Jones said. “However, there is a specific mission to increase the availability of and access to racially responsive crisis supports — so, in short, to target the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] community.”

The system comes from the Marcus-David Peters Act, which was signed into law in late 2020 and is named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black, 24-year-old biology teacher who was killed by a police officer in 2018 in Richmond while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Once operational, the system will transfer people who call 911 or 988, the national suicide and mental health crisis hotline, to a regional call center. There, staff determine whether to de-escalate the situation over the phone, dispatch a mobile crisis unit or send specially trained law enforcement.

“Our emergency communications center partners have been doing a wonderful job in getting trained on mental health, psychotic disorders, substance use, suicide prevention, trauma-informed care: various different topics that will help them learn how to assess and manage and transfer calls when they receive Marcus Alert-type calls,” Jones said.

The regional crisis call center is also building mobile crisis teams, Jones said, noting more information on these teams will come out at the time of implementation in December.

“Arlington County and the police department are well ahead of what the state protocols are for the Marcus Alert implementation that we’re working towards in 2024,” ACPD Community Engagement Division Supervisor Lt. Steve Proud said.

The state required localities to ready implementation plans by the summer of 2022. However, localities have until 2028 to stand up a Marcus Alert system.

So far, five localities within each region of the state have operating programs, according to the Virginia Dept. of Behavioral Health and Development Services:

  • Western: Madison and Fauquier counties, plus Warrenton and Culpeper
  • Northern: Prince William County
  • Southwest: Bristol and Washington County
  • Central: Richmond
  • Southeast: Virginia Beach

Jones had another big announcement last week related to the county’s “Mobile Outreach Support Team.”

“When we implement the funding that we will get from the state [for Marcus Alert], we’re going to expand our MOST team due to how effective they have been in the community and pouring into our community members,” she said. “So we’ll be able to have new team with a new van, and expanding hours of operation as well.”

MOST launched this summer and comprises licensed clinician, a peer recovery specialist and an outreach worker from the Dept. of Human Services. Between 1-9 p.m., they respond to referral calls in a retrofitted van equipped with everything from a defibrillator to Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

The vehicle was funded through a 2-year, $390,000 federal grant.

Mobile Outreach Support Team coordinator Michael Keen shows Rep. Don Beyer the county’s behavioral health crisis response van launched last month (staff photo by James Jarvis)

MOST Coordinator Michael Keen said he conducts homeless outreach while shelters, the public and the police department refer individuals to him, so he can introduce them to county programs. He says he has received 45-55 referrals per month in the last two months, up from an average of 15-20, largely from police.

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The Arlington Public Schools Syphax Education Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

High school-based behavioral health services could be in place by November or December of this year, according to the county.

In the wake of a mini-rash of student deaths earlier this year that included the fatal overdose of a 14-year-old Wakefield High School student, Arlington Public Schools and the county government began devising a joint response to the twin epidemics of substance use and mental health issues.

This included plans to place county therapists in schools. The intent was to make it easier for students to get mental health support from the Dept. of Human Services, overseen by Arlington’s Community Services Board, or CSB.

“Both APS and the County seek to reduce barriers for children and youth to receive services from the Arlington CSB,” a county report says. “This agreement will allow for the provision of outpatient services in the school setting rather than the office setting. It will significantly reduce or eliminate the need for transportation and potential family time away from work.”

As part of the 2024 budget adopted earlier this year, the Arlington County Board approved $520,000 in ongoing funding and four full-time employees for this program. Recruitment of the four employees is underway, per the report.

The county notes the program responds to calls from the community for more services to youth.

“Expanded behavioral health services for children and youth has been identified as a community need by both Arlington Public Schools and the County through ongoing dialogues with stakeholders,” the report says.

The report emphasizes that the School-Based Behavioral Health Program cannot be the single, defining solution for struggling teens.

It “supplements and reinforces families’ efforts to enhance youth mental wellness by teaching and coaching youth to develop coping skills for managing emotional challenges in order to improve functioning at home, school, and in the community,” the report says.

The county and APS spent the summer hammering out a memorandum of understanding permitting the DHS Children’s Behavioral Health Bureau to provide behavioral health support in high schools. This weekend, the County Board is set to ratify the document.

Once the four behavioral health specialists are hired and finish mandatory training, they could begin practicing in Arlington high schools in November or December, the report says.


In its first month of operation, Arlington County’s mobile behavioral health response team has been busy responding to calls.

Most of these calls — which range from welfare checks to mental health emergencies and drug overdoses — involve people who are homeless, officials say. It’s a trend they attribute to the recent closures of shelters in D.C.

“There’s been a surge of homelessness in Arlington County because of the closures in D.C.,” says Grace Guerrero, senior clinical psychologist and mental health supervisor, noting many are leaving D.C. for Arlington as well as other parts of Northern Virginia and southern Maryland.

“We’ll see what unfolds,” she added. “But we have seen those upticks.”

During a media event on Thursday, Arlington County’s “Mobile Outreach Support Team” (MOST) showed off its retrofitted van, stocked with non-perishable food, water, a defibrillator, clothes, hygiene items, Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

The vehicle was funded through a 2-year, $390,000 federal grant — secured with help from Rep. Don Beyer — in an effort to divert police involvement from calls involving mental health crises, substance abuse or domestic violence.

The team comprises a licensed clinician, a peer recovery specialist and an outreach worker from the Dept. of Human Services. They will triage a situation on-site and provide peer support and conflict resolution. MOST also works with medical and behavioral health services to ensure people receive the appropriate care.

The MOST team receives about 20-35 calls per week, largely between the van’s operational hours of 1-9 p.m. Once the van arrives, most of the time, people accept the team’s help, which Guerrero noted can prevent situations from escalating and resulting in injuries or death.

Guerrero says she is unsure if MOST has significantly reduced police involvement in mental health crises at this point. That is in part because emergency responders are still, typically, the first to arrive on scene, and will call the MOST team for specialized assistance.

To further reduce police involvement in these calls, she is looking to develop an enhanced “decision tree” to help police assess when their presence may not be necessary.

“I don’t know that we’ve done yet the curbing of [police] going to these [situations] unless we self-deploy… But right now, in these first five weeks, I would say that probably allowed [police] to go back into service sooner, much sooner,” she said.

Reducing law enforcement involvement in mental health crises is a goal advanced by the Police Practices Work Group, which was convened to suggest reforms to the Arlington County Police Department after the death of George Floyd.

ACPD too has noted the increased entanglement of police officers in mental health emergencies and the officer burnout to which it is contributing. Like the police department, the jail also is seeing an influx of inmates with mental health disorders as well as homeless inmates.

This includes Abonesh Woldegeorges, a 73-year-old woman who died in the jail last month. Her death prompted some in and outside local government to renew pressure on the county to address the role of law enforcement in tackling homelessness and mental health emergencies.


Next week a new county government van will hit the streets, providing on-the-scene behavioral health services.

The van will be operated by a new “Mobile Outreach Support Team,” consisting of “a licensed behavioral health clinician, a certified peer recovery specialist, and an outreach worker” from Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services.

The team will work alongside emergency responders, providing “alternatives to incarceration for those engaged in ‘nuisance crimes/behaviors,'” while decreasing hospital emergency room and psychiatric hospital admissions.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, a key demand of the “defund the police” movement was reducing the police budget in order to fund additional social services. While Arlington has, in fact, increased its police budget, the new outreach team is at least a partial realization of the vision for diverting some police responses to behavioral health clinicians, as suggested by the county’s Police Practices Work Group.

More, below, from a county press release.

The Mobile Outreach Support Team (MOST) is the latest addition to the County’s expanding network of care for people experiencing mental health and substance use issues.

The MOST program is coordinated by the Department of Human Services (DHS), in partnership with the Arlington County Police Department, Arlington County Fire Department, and the Emergency Communications Center, which operates the County’s 9-1-1 call center.

MOST launches July 31, 2023, and will operate Monday through Friday, between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The goals of MOST include increasing access to mental health and substance use treatment and decreasing the role of non-clinical first responders in addressing mental health needs. The program also aims to provide alternatives to incarceration for those engaged in “nuisance crimes/behaviors,” and decrease emergency department and psychiatric hospital admissions.

“MOST is an important expansion of our efforts to ensure that people in crisis can get the right help when and where they need it,” said DHS Director Anita Friedman. “MOST team members are specialists who will be out in the community. That includes responding to 9-1-1 calls that have a behavioral health need, conducting outreach to people who are homeless, and working closely with our partners in Police and Fire to support them in the field when needed.”

About MOST

The National Guidelines for Crisis Care from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) emphasize the importance of offering mobile, community-based intervention to individuals in need wherever they are, including at home, work, or anywhere else in the community where the person is experiencing a crisis.

The MOST team – which includes a licensed behavioral health clinician, a certified peer recovery specialist, and an outreach worker – will provide a range of essential functions that include:

  • Triage/screening, including explicit screening for suicidality
  • Assessment
  • De-escalation/resolution
  • Peer support
  • Coordination with medical and behavioral health services
  • Crisis planning and follow-up

Arlington’s MOST will also be able to distribute harm reduction tools such as Narcan and fentanyl test strips, connect people who are homeless to shelters and other services, and transport people from the scene to providers where they can receive assistance.

Mobile Unit

The MOST has a specially equipped van (a County fleet vehicle modified using federal grant funds) to provide services in the community. The van is connected to the County’s computer-aided dispatch system and an on-board computer allows MOST clinicians to use DHS’s electronic health record system. The vehicle includes supplies for harm reduction, non-perishable food, water, a defibrillator, clothing, and hygiene items.

File photo

Arlington County police are investigating the death of a man near the county office complex at Sequoia Plaza.

A family member called 911 around 4 p.m., reporting that he was attempting to kill himself, according to initial reports. He was found dead by arriving police and firefighters, in an outdoor area near the Arlington Dept. of Human Services offices and a county-run mental health facility.

“At approximately 4:04 p.m., police were dispatched to the 2100 block of Washington Boulevard,” ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. “Upon arrival, an adult male was located deceased. ACPD is conducting a death investigation and based on the preliminary investigation, the death does not appear suspicious and there is no apparent ongoing threat to the public. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will determine cause and manner of death.”

A ramp between Washington Blvd and Route 50 was closed during part of the investigation.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm, call 911. You can also call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, Arlington Dept. of Human Services’ emergency services line at 703-228-5160, or CrisisLink at 703-527-4077.

(Updated at 11:30 a.m.) Earlier this month, Virginia House of Delegates 2nd District candidate Kevin Saucedo-Broach dropped out of the race to take care of a family member.

But when he announced this decision, he said a recurring conversation on the campaign trail will stick with him and inform his advocacy going forward. The topic was mental health.

“The more I talked to people across Arlington, the more sure I became that Virginia’s mental health crisis is traumatizing people from all walks of life and that those people were absolutely desperate for our government to do something serious about it,” he said.

These reflections, posted on Twitter, come as Arlington County is trying to fill in gaps in Virginia’s patchwork approach to mental health care — precipitated by the closure of state psychiatric beds during the pandemic — with community-based services.

This week, it celebrated the newly renovated Crisis Intervention Center, where people in a mental health crisis can go to receive services — away from hospitals and law enforcement, who are typically on the front lines of this issue.

Now that Saucedo-Broach is out, Adele McClure, who announced her bid more than a year ago, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary this June. An early opponent, Nicole Merlene, also dropped out.

Then, McClure will run in the November general election. There is no incumbent for this new seat, encompassing Arlington’s Metro corridors, created through a recent redistricting process.

Saucedo-Broach lamented that some 80,000 Arlingtonians in the 2nd District would no longer have the opportunity to see candidates debate issues like poverty and mental health. He says that speaks poorly of Arlington.

“For a county as vibrant, diverse, and politically active as Arlington, it certainly speaks very poorly of our work as a political and organizing community that so few residents felt it worthwhile to stand for election to a band-new legislative district with an open race,” he said. “Clearly, we have a great deal of work left to do to break down systemic barriers and expand political access in Arlington County.”

McClure acknowledged the news in a post on social media asking for support, as Saucedo-Broach’s name will still appear on the ballot. She has an interactive map for residents who want to see if she could be their next representative.

She, too, says she will be an effective advocate for mental health policies because of her experience on the Arlington Community Services Board. This oversees the continuum of nonprofit- and county-provided services to people with disabilities,  substance use disorders and mental health challenges.

“We need funding to expand community-based services and must recognize that each individual is unique and has different needs — some folks suffer from co-occurring mental health, substance use, and medical treatment needs,” McClure says.

“At a time when demand for behavioral health care treatment is rising, Virginians deserve a system that has ample capacity for pediatric, adult, and elder patients across the continuum of care so that people with mental health and substance treatment needs can receive care with dignity that is free of stigma or shame,” she continues.

McClure has picked up the endorsement of Del. Alfonso Lopez, the Virginia Education Association political action committee representing Virginia teachers, U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, the progressive group New Virginia Majority and pro-abortion advocacy group Repro Rising.

Meanwhile, longtime state Sen. Barbara Favola is running against lawyer James DeVita to represent the 40th District. On mental health, Favola was chief patron of a bill that passed this session requiring hospitals to provide trauma-informed security.

Tackling the twin epidemics of mental health and substance use inside the jail is top-of-mind for the candidates for Arlington County Sheriff.

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Local and state officials gathered today to celebrate the grand opening of a place where people can go if they are experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

The newly renovated Crisis Intervention Center (CIC) provides behavioral healthcare services in a community-based setting to individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis. The location at 2120 Washington Blvd is open 24/7, 365 days per year, to people of all ages.

With the center, Arlington County aims to divert people in crisis from the emergency room and away from interactions with law enforcement — an imperfect system that was straining Arlington County Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office and local hospitals.

It comes as, in Arlington, nearly 10% of adult residents are reporting frequent mental distress, compared to 13% in all of Virginia, according to Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. In the wake of the pandemic, Northern Virginia saw a four-fold increase of adults reporting the onset of anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as one in 10 youth in the region contemplating suicide last year.

“It was critical for us to figure out, to pivot as soon as we could possibly pivot, to figure out alternatives to psychiatric hospitalizations,” Arlington County Dept. of Human Services Deputy Director Deborah Warren said during the ceremony today.

“People in a behavioral health crisis were being brought to the ER where, once they were assessed by a certified [clinician] and got a temporary detention order, they would languish for sometimes a week, or 10 days at a time — not getting care — handcuffed to a gurney and guarded by police or sheriff,” she continued.

Imagine, she continued, being paranoid, hearing voices or being significantly depressed and going to the hospital with its bright lights and cacophony of noises.

“It’s not trauma-informed,” she said. “Maybe all they need is to talk to somebody. Maybe they just need to be in a calming space and de-escalate, instead of a very stressful environment in the hospital.”

The grand opening of the CIC celebrated new ways the county Dept. of Human Services has been authorized to help people.

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Candidates for Arlington County Sheriff during a recent forum hosted by Offender Aid and Restoration (via Offender Aid and Restoration/Facebook)

All three candidates looking to replace Sheriff Beth Arthur, who retired at the end of last year, say they want to end solitary confinement.

This unifying policy position surfaced during a forum hosted by the nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration last Thursday.

Arlington County police officer James Herring, retired sheriff lieutenant Wanda Younger and Acting Sheriff Jose Quiroz are seeking the nomination of the Arlington County Democratic Committee in the June primary.

Although unified on running a “safe and progressive” jail, including by ending solitary confinement, they had different plans for improving the physical safety and mental well-being of staff and inmates.

“We’re definitely going to remove [solitary confinement],” said Quiroz, the son of Honduran immigrants who grew up in Arlington and joined the Sheriff’s Office 21 years ago after a stint in the Marine Corps. “We’re already reviewing this. It’s not helpful, it’s not healthy and it’s not rehabilitative. It needs to go.”

Herring, a graduate of Arlington Public Schools who was a police officer in D.C.’s Ward 8 before joining the Arlington County Police Department in 2019, said there are better alternatives to the practice.

“There are going to be people who will have to be separated from others because they just will not work well for whatever reason — they might have to be separated for safety reasons — but we absolutely cannot put people in holes and forget about them,” he said. “We need to connect them to mental and medical health care and keep them connected with family.”

Younger, who retired from the Sheriff’s Office after 31 years of service, said solitary confinement exacerbates mental health issues rather than contributing to an individual’s rehabilitation.

“What we need to do is focus on programs to help identify the root causes of why people act in certain ways,” she said, calling for training in trauma-informed care and in understanding common triggers of negative behaviors.

They articulated positions ARLnow previously reported on, regarding well-being in the jail, which saw seven men die while in jail. Six of the inmates were Black, which led the Arlington branch of the NAACP to push for greater transparency from the office and changes to jail operations.

Quiroz says he is bringing in biometric sensors that allow staff to respond to medical emergencies “where seconds and minutes count” and interested in the county assuming control of medical care.

ACSO ditched its former contracted medical care provider in response to a growing number of deaths in the jail, and one inmate has died since the new provider took over.

Herring argued for adding in-house psychiatrists to the existing ranks of therapists and clinicians.

“We still have to ship people across the state to actually see a psychiatrist who does not know them, their community, where they’re from or what their issue is,” he said. “Oftentimes they just load them up with meds and send them back here until they’re tranquilized enough… to carry on, and the cycle repeats.”

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Emergency response on scene in Shirlington

There’s a large emergency response in Shirlington following reports of an armed man suffering a mental health crisis.

Numerous police units are on scene, along with medics standing by, due to the incident on the 4200 block of Campbell Avenue. Some roads in the Shirlington Village area have been blocked during the response.

An Arlington County police spokeswoman confirmed the incident, which started around 2 p.m.

“Police remain on scene investigating,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage.

Update at 3:50 p.m. — The situation has been resolved and officers are now leaving the scene, according to police.

The Arlington Public Schools Syphax Education Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

There has been a mini-spate of deaths and reported suicide attempts among Arlington Public Schools students in the last month, ARLnow has learned.

A middle schooler died after Christmas and a high schooler died in mid-January, according to sources in the school community.

Medics have been dispatched to Arlington schools a number of times since the end of winter break, for suicide attempts, overdoses and other substance abuse issues among students, according to scanner traffic. In one instance, medics were dispatched twice in one day to the same school for reports of suicide attempts through taking pills.

“Based on anecdotal information — reports from principals and Student Services personnel — we do remain concerned about the needs of our students and how they are handling the multiple impacts to their lives and how those are manifesting themselves in some of their choices, behaviors and statements around mental health,” Darrell Sampson, APS Executive Director of Student Services, tells ARLnow.

He couldn’t comment on specific cases, citing privacy concerns.

These incidents are part of a broader trend upward in mental health needs among children. Sampson says during the 2021-22 school year, APS saw a “significantly higher” number of suicide risk assessments compared with the 2020-21 academic year. Meanwhile, clinicians with Arlington County Dept. of Human Services reported seeing more students exhibiting self-harming behaviors.

Generally, he said, school mental health professionals are seeing students struggling to navigate stressful life experiences because they have fewer past social interactions to draw from due to pandemic-era isolation. APS ended in-person learning in the spring of 2020 and resumed in-person instruction for all students midway through the 2021-22 school year.

“You have kids… who have missed out on years of being able to build those resiliency skills and social-emotional competencies through everyday experiences,” he said. “Now, they’re back in school and they’re experiencing the same things our students have always experienced in school — whether that’s struggles with a class, or with friends, or struggles with everyday experiences — and their bag of skills is just not at all [equipped] and when things happen in our lives that are stressful it can impact them in more intense ways.”

Elizabeth Hughes, the senior director for research at the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, tells ARLnow mental health is worsening among children in the entire Northern Virginia region. She will be releasing detailed findings next Wednesday.

Some 37% of public high school students experienced recent symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression last winter and 34% reported past-year persistent sadness, according to her forthcoming report.

One in 10 high schoolers seriously contemplated suicide over the past year, with comparably high rates among middle school students. Just under one in two high school students in the region had past or recent mental health needs.

She says the pandemic only accelerated a longer upward trend in anxiety, persistent worry, sadness and loss of interest among teens.

“The [American Academy of Pediatrics] has declared a national emergency around children’s mental health, but the word ’emergency’ feels so much more ephemeral than what we are seeing,” she said. “More youth than ever need help, yes. But this story is so much bigger than the aftershocks of a pandemic.”

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