As the interim CEO of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce and a member of ReadyNation, I know that improving the well-being of students will help grow the economy by improving outcomes for students, thereby ensuring that our region meets the increasing demand for skilled workers.

However, I am deeply concerned about the state of our children and youth who make up our future workforce. Our children and youth are feeling the effects of a pre-existing equity crisis, which was increased by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students of color, particularly low-income Black and Latino, are unequally impacted due to historic inequities in health care and disproportionate representation in households with lower-wage jobs deemed essential.

How bad is the situation for students? All evidence considered, it is time to sound the alarm.

A recently released report by the Council for a Strong America indicated that in 2019, nearly half of California adolescents reported symptoms of moderate to severe psychological distress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported a national increase in children ages 5-17 visiting hospital emergency rooms for mental health-related reasons. The report also indicated that our health systems are stretched thin, operating at or beyond their capacity to treat children and youth for psychiatry in the last year.

But worsening mental health is not the only major barrier to student success. Untreated physical conditions like asthma, poor oral or eye health, and other chronic conditions also limit students’ attendance. Additionally, untreated children’s health issues also impact our current workforce. As any parent can tell you, when their child is sick, they miss work.

The bottom line is this: If we want to keep children on a path toward graduation, we need to provide the support necessary to address and treat their health and mental health issues early on. Without these initiatives, our future workforce and economy suffer.

The good news is we have evidence that points to a viable solution. Investments in student wellness supports like school-based mental health services and full-service community schools can help students cope, elevate their chances for high school graduation, post-secondary education enrollment, and future success.

Recognizing this, the state has made considerable investments in coordinated services this year.

School-based health centers help to meet the physical health needs of a child, and their impact on the well-being of a child can be remarkable. School-based health centers have been shown to improve compliance with follow-up visits to health-care professionals, reduce time out of school for doctor’s visits, and provide more specialized care for adolescents.

Those physical health benefits correspond with improvements in grades, graduation rates, behavior, fewer emergency room visits, and cases of substance abuse.

View the original article on The Fresno Bee.