New Hampshire is the second best state for overall child well-being in the country, a four-year national survey released this week has found.
The survey, known as the 2022 Kids Count Databook and conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, offers other positive indicators for the state: Kids in New Hampshire are ranked fourth highest in terms of economic well-being, fourth highest for education, and second highest for health.
But the comparatively high rankings don’t mean that the mental health of Granite State children is in great shape. In fact, between 2016 and 2020, the last year in which children were surveyed, the percentage of children ages 3 to 17 who reported having anxiety or depression rose in New Hampshire from 14.4 percent to 18.4 percent, a 27.8 percent increase, the report says.
And because the survey captured children and families between 2016 and 2020, the data doesn’t account for all increases in mental health challenges for children since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children waiting for one of the state’s 16 inpatient psychiatric treatment beds for youth. In May 2021, the number reached 30. There were 10 waiting Wednesday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ tracker.
Advocates in the state say the picture for kids remains troubling.
“We know that it was a trend going up into 2020,” said Emma Sevigny, the children’s behavioral health policy coordinator for New Futures, a New Hampshire health advocacy group that partnered with the Casey Foundation to help administer the surveys. “And we know that the pandemic has only compounded that. So even though the data necessarily doesn’t show that, it still is understood that there’s a mental health epidemic going on.”
The Kids Count survey shows some areas of improvement for New Hampshire kids and some areas of stagnation or decline. Nine percent of children in New Hampshire were in poverty in 2020, compared to 11 percent in 2016. The number of high school students not graduating on time fell from 14 percent to 12 percent between 2011 and 2019. Teen births per 1,000 females fell from 16 in 2010 to seven in 2020. The number of children without health insurance fell from 5 percent to 3 percent.
But the number of fourth graders not proficient in reading rose from 59 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2019. The number of children between 10 and 17 who were overweight or obese rose from 24 percent in 2017 to 27 percent in 2020. The percentage of young children ages 3 to 4 who did not attend preschool in 2020 was still 46 percent, only a percentage point lower than in 2012. And the number of children whose parents lack secure employment fell only one percentage point between 2012 and 2020, from 23 percent to 22 percent.
For many of those metrics, despite only modest changes in the past decade, New Hampshire exceeded the national average.
In a statement, Gov. Chris Sununu hailed the top-line rankings, arguing that the state’s “investments in mental health and public education have delivered results for children and families across the 603.”
“With top rankings in economic well-being, best education, and best health too, these rankings all make one thing clear: New Hampshire is the best state in the country for families.”
Sevigny also gave credit to programs the state has set up to improve conditions for two of New Hampshire’s most persistent problems: children’s mental health and access to child care. Those initiatives include the creation of mobile crisis units and a new hotline that allows people with a 603 area code to dial 988 and get immediate mental health support (those in New Hampshire without a 603 area code should call 1-833-710-6477). The state has also provided child care scholarships to give financial assistance to families seeking day care, Sevigny noted.
But Sevigny said New Futures is continuing to press lawmakers and state officials to support further expansions of children’s mental health systems by extending the state’s Medicaid expansion law, which is set to expire in 2023, and providing further funding to the 988 program and child care scholarship programs.
“We don’t want the overall rank of No. 2 to mask the real story that there are still a lot of challenges facing all families in New Hampshire,” she said.
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.