Photo depicting Josephine Howell (left) dancing with children at Jimi Hendrix Park.

OPINION: We Must Invest in Our Children’s Mental Health

by Maeve O’Leary Sloan

Despite hopes we’d be closer to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all continuing to grapple with how to navigate an uncertain future. The delta variant is surging as Washington State’s kids return to school. Essential COVID-19 protections, like the eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits, have lapsed just as local rent prices have again begun to rise

These types of stress can cause huge strains on mental health — especially for kids. And for families who are grappling with how to pay for rent and essentials, or the daily impacts of systemic racism, these stressors are multiplied. As a psychologist-in-training working at a local children’s inpatient program, I see firsthand just how many families in our community are struggling to maintain baseline economic stability. 

Fortunately, the monthly Child Tax Credits — implemented in July as part of the American Rescue Plan — are a game changer. These direct cash payments of up to $300 per child for nearly 9 in 10 U.S. families with kids are providing a new standard of support. Critically, the credit was expanded to be fully refundable, which essentially means that families with very low to no incomes — who were previously ineligible — finally qualify for the credit’s full support. 

This important change to the credit is a paradigm shift that prioritizes the economic well-being of the lowest-income families over outdated notions of being “deserving” of support by meeting a certain income threshold. In the Seattle-Bellevue area, where average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is north of $1,900, a parent needs to make more than $36 per hour — more than twice the minimum wage — just to afford an apartment with a room for themself and a child. And that doesn’t account for all other day-to-day costs of raising a child. That’s why this expanded and fully refundable version of the Child Tax Credit must be made permanent. 

These payments can also help address persistent, structural racism in our educational, employment, and public benefits systems that create barriers to wellness and economic security for families who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. To ensure everyone has access, families with kids without Social Security Numbers — who are currently ineligible — must also be included in legislation. This would ensure the credit is fully accessible to immigrant and mixed-immigration status families. 

In my work, I regularly see the impact that our region’s extreme economic hardship — like homelessness or constant hunger — can have on a kid. We know that healthy development can be hindered by sustained exposure to conditions that create toxic stress, or the prolonged, frequent activation of the body’s stress response system. This stress can, in turn, negatively impact a child’s development and get in the way of one’s ability to learn, to feel secure, and to self-regulate. These difficulties can combine to create compounding mental health challenges at school, at home, and beyond. 

Child Tax Credit payments, then, are essential. Here in Washington State, the average monthly payment for households is $430. This is the type of baseline that provides a level of predictability and stability for caregivers and their children. It can help make up the difference to ensure that rent is paid and food is on the table. It can help families prioritize necessary medical procedures or car repairs, keeping them safe and healthy in the long-term and preventing further harm. Furthermore, it can contribute to a greater peace of mind by helping families save for emergencies. 

After just one payment, one study showed Child Tax Credit checks reduced financial anxiety for 56% of parents. Another analysis demonstrates that families with low incomes, in particular, are paying for basic needs with these credits — essentials like food, utilities, clothing, and housing. Since the monthly payments have begun, households with kids reporting not having enough to eat fell by nearly one-third nationally, or 3.3 million.  

In essence, the Child Tax Credit’s regular, unconditional cash payments are contributing to an environment for kids to be safe, warm, and well-fed — the foundation of strong mental health. These payments, therefore, can minimize the economic conditions that lead to toxic stress and support healthy child development.  

Even the best mental health interventions can’t substitute for baseline economic stability. While I continue to train in psychological approaches to enhance family well-being, I know it’s even more important that I advocate for upstream investments to help kids and their caregivers thrive. The Child Tax Credit is one of these essential strategies. That’s why I urge my members of Congress to invest in children’s mental health by making the expanded Child Tax Credit payments permanent and fully refundable.

Maeve O’Leary Sloan, M.A., is a fourth year Psy.D. Student at Antioch University Seattle and current practicum student at a local children’s inpatient program. She is a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Economic Inequity and Health Taskforce.

📸 Featured Image: Children dance at the 2018 ROOTS family picnic. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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