Bill passed by House would weaken children’s behavioral health treatment systems – commentary

A stop sign on a school bus

“The YRBS is a critical tool in understanding the scope of substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and even unhealthy eating habits among the state’s student population.” (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Our kids are in crisis.

Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the behavioral health concerns facing our children and families. Data shows that children in New Hampshire and across the country are experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety, and we fear this will only get worse in the years to come.

During these tumultuous times, it’s critical that we use every tool at our disposal to support our children, and the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (YRBS) is an invaluable resource we depend on to inform our prevention efforts and strengthen public health policies.

Developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the YRBS uses valid and anonymous data with safeguards in place to discount false answers, monitor key health and wellness indicators and experiences for school-aged youth, track changes in behavior, and empower students to have their voices heard.

State health and education officials use this data to track trends and develop health systems and policies that prevent and address risky and unhealthy behaviors by students. Without the data that is used to inform what policies and programs are needed, New Hampshire could lose out on significant amounts of funding for direct behavioral health care services.

Yet, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed House Bill 1639, a bill that would weaken New Hampshire’s children’s behavioral health treatment systems by changing participation in the YRBS to “opt-in,” reducing participation and data collection, resulting in limited access to the confidential data needed to inform youth safety and wellness policies and programs.

The YRBS is specifically designed to protect the anonymity of students and is purposefully structured as an “opt-out” program in order to maximize participation and expand data collection as widely as possible. Shifting YRBS to “opt-in” would significantly decrease participation, contribute to greater inaccuracies, make it more difficult to assess the welfare of New Hampshire’s youth, and could potentially sacrifice future federal grant funding of the prevention and treatment programs that rely upon this data.

The concerns of parents and guardians are understandable, but schools will continue to inform them when a survey will be conducted in their child’s school. They are given access to survey materials and are able to opt their child out of participation in writing or electronically at any time. Keeping the YRBS as “opt-out” strikes the proper balance between both parental and state interests, and it would be irresponsible to severely limit data collection at a time when the health and safety of New Hampshire’s youth is so fragile.

The YRBS is a critical tool in understanding the scope of substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and even unhealthy eating habits among the state’s student population. And particularly in the time of COVID-19, it is especially vital to recognize any changes in these health behavior patterns so schools, parents, and programs can adjust their strategies to support youth accordingly.

As a state we need to be dedicated to supporting and strengthening a comprehensive and integrated system of care, but HB 1639 will only weaken New Hampshire’s youth behavioral health prevention and treatment systems. Thousands of Granite State individuals and families currently benefit from data-driven, school-based behavioral health programs. It is vital that the New Hampshire Senate consider the lasting damage that HB 1639 would have if passed and instead support youth voices by opposing this bill.

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Emma Sevigny
Emma Sevigny

Emma Sevigny is the children's behavioral health policy coordinator at New Futures.

Hanan Babikir Bedri
Hanan Babikir Bedri

Hanan Babikir Bedri is the executive director of the New Hampshire Public Health Association.