About 2,200 more children in Hawaii struggled with anxiety and depression in 2020 — a 23% increase from 2016, according to a statewide study released Monday.
The 2022 Kids Count Data Book, which tracks state trends related to children, found that Hawaii ranks in the bottom third of the United States when it comes to the educational (35th) and economic (34th) wellbeing of children who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of the high unemployment on the islands at the time.
The report was released Saturday ahead of the Hawaii primary, and supporters said they hoped politicians and candidates were paying attention.
“It’s a good time because the kids in Hawaii are getting back to school right now, and just to remind leaders that our focus should not just be on catching the kids academically, but on making sure they’re doing well with their mental health.” are fine,” Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said in an interview.
“We all know that the pandemic has hit our children really hard,” Woo added. “They couldn’t go to school for a year, many activities were canceled and they couldn’t see their friends.” The Hawaii Children’s Action Network was a state partner for the report.
The annual survey, released by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked states into four categories based on 16 indicators. The island nation fared better in the rankings for health (5th) and family and community (15th), according to the report, which measured data from 2016 to 2020 to gauge the impact of the pandemic.
Hawaii ranked 22nd overall, four notches up, compared to the 2021 report that compared statistics from 2010 to 2019. However, advocates have expressed particular concern about mental health, as the report estimated that 5.9% of children ages 3 to 17 experienced anxiety or depression in 2020, compared to 4.8% in 2016.
David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of the nonprofit organization HawaiiKidsCan, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.
“We are prepared for a perfect storm of challenges,” said Sun-Miyashiro. “Even before the pandemic, we weren’t necessarily doing the best we could to take care of our children and families.”
The report found that in the early stages of the pandemic, Hawaiian children had suffered disproportionately from school closures and restrictions that essentially shut down the state’s main tourism industry, resulting in record unemployment.
Ivette Stern of the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii said the report was alarming.
“We know from research that children growing up in economically troubled families feel the weight of that stress,” Stern said. “Therefore, it is imperative that we support Hawaii’s families, achieve economic security and increase access.”
Hawaii was in the bottom 10 states on several key metrics, including findings that 72% of eighth graders were below math proficiency, about 9% of teens ages 16-19 were not in school or work, and 37% of all children there were the state lived in families who spent more than a third of their income on housing.
Woo said there have been legislative efforts in the past to ensure school psychologists are recognized and paid well, but these measures have failed. She added that her organization would support these bills again when they were introduced next year.
“Anything that our legislature, our governor, our county councils can do to ensure parents can afford housing and make ends meet will help relieve children’s mental stress and ensure they are able to to develop academically.” She added.
With a budget surplus, Hawaii lawmakers allocated billions of dollars to initiatives aimed at helping families afford the high cost of living in the state, and the governor signed legislation providing $100 to $300 in tax refunds.
But advocates say more needs to be done.
Sun-Miyashiro welcomed the tax refunds approved this year but said he would like to see them rise to $1,000 for families in need.
“I think as we can see from this ranking, we can’t just rely on the status quo,” he said.
“There’s a lot of good work going on in the state right now,” he continued. “Many schools are working hard on career paths and career preparation opportunities for students, but there is definitely still work to be done.”
Civil Beat Health Insurance is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.