Newly released data show Tennessee ranks 36th in overall child well-being, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, a state-by-state report of recent household data developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that analyzes how children and families are faring across the country.
In its release of the report, the Foundation says that children in America are in the midst of a mental health crisis, struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels.
This year’s report focuses on youth mental health and its findings led officials with the Foundation to concur with a recent assessment by the U.S. Surgeon General that conditions amount to a youth mental health pandemic.
The annual report sheds light on the health, economic and other challenges affecting American children as well as how those challenges are more likely to affect children of color.
Despite its 36th-place ranking, Tennessee has seen a slight improvement in overall child well-being and has seen ranking improvements in some areas. As the pandemic ebbs, officials write that “it is critical that Tennessee strengthen support for children to ensure positive trends continue.”
Tennessee’s highest ranking is in Education, where the state ranks 25th nationally, leading the Casey Foundation to write, “While national advances have occurred in education, Tennessee has clearly improved more than average.”
Recently released 2022 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) results indicate Tennessee continues to move in the “right direction,” according to the report.
Within the Education category, Tennessee showed improvement in the percentage of 4th graders not proficient in reading as that figure fell to 65% in 2019, down from 72% in 2009. The percentage of eighth graders not proficient in math fell from 75% in 2009 to 69% in 2019, while the percentage of high school students not graduating on time fell to 10% in the 2018-2019 academic year from 14% in the 2010-2011 school year.
Tennessee’s lowest ranking was in Health, at #41. The number of child and teen deaths per 100,000 people rose from 31 in 2010 to 35 in 2020, climbing at a faster rate than the nation as a whole, which saw that figure increase from 26 per 100,000 people to 28 over the past decade. The percentage of low birth-weight babies decreased slightly in the last 10 years, falling to 8.9% from 9.0%. Tennessee also saw improvement in the percentage of children without health insurance, which fell from 6% between 2008-2012 to 5% between 2016 and 2020. The state also saw a slight decrease in the percentage of children and teens ages 10 to 17 who are overweight or obese, falling from 38% in 2016 and 2017 to 37% in 2019 and 2020. Nationally, the percentage of kids identified as overweight or obese climbed slightly during that same time.
In terms of Economic Well-Being, Tennessee ranked 33rd in the nation, showing improvement in sub-categories like the percentage of children living in poverty (24% in 2008-2012 to 21% in 2016 to 2020), the percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment (34% to 29% between 2012 and 2020), the percentage of children living in households with high housing cost burden (34% in 2012 to 27% in 2020), and in the percentage of teens not in school and not working, which fell from 9% to 7% in the latest survey.
Tennessee ranks 39th in the country in the Family and Community section, with the percentage of kids being raised in single-parent homes climbing slightly from 36% in the period from 2008 to 2012 to 37% between 2016 and 2020. Tennessee saw significant improvement in the number of teen births per 1000, with that figure falling from 43 in 2010 to 23 in 2020, mirroring the national trend, which saw that figure fall to 15 from 34 a decade ago. The percentage of children living in high-poverty areas fell from 14% at the end of 2012 to 10% in 2020, and the percentage of children living in families where the head of household does not have a high school diploma fell from 13% to 11% in that same time.
“The Data Book shows simply returning to a pre-pandemic level of support for children and families would shortchange millions of kids and fail to address persistent geographic, racial and ethnic disparities,” said Richard Kennedy, executive director of Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Tennessee’s member of the KIDS COUNT network.
The Data Book reports that children across America, and in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, were more likely to encounter anxiety or depression during the first year of the COVID-19crisis than previously, with the national figure jumping 26%, from 9.4% of children ages 3-17 (5.8 million kids) to 11.8% (7.3 million) between 2016 and 2020, the year COVID-19 swept across the United States. This increase represents 1.5 million more children who are struggling to make it through the day. Data shows that nearly one in 10 Tennessee children are diagnosed with anxiety or depression, and that the Volunteer State is “trending in the wrong direction.”
Racial and ethnic disparities contribute to disproportionately troubling mental health and wellness conditions among children of color. Nine percent of high schoolers overall but, 12% of Black students, 13% of students of two or more races and 26% of American Indian or Native Alaskan high schoolers attempted suicide in the year previous to the most recent federal survey. Further, many LGBTQ young people are encountering challenges as they seek mental health support. Among heterosexual high school students of all races and ethnicities, 6% attempted suicide, while the share was 23% for gay, lesbian or bisexual students.
Each year, the Data Book presents national and state data from 16 indicators in four domains —economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors — and ranks the states according to how children are faring overall. The data in this year’s report includes data from before the pandemic as well as more recent figures and represent the latest available.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health in a child’s ability to thrive,” said Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “As our nation continues to navigate the fallout from the COVID crisis, policymakers must do more to ensure all kids have access to the care and support they need to cope and live full lives.”
The Casey Foundation calls for lawmakers to heed the surgeon general’s warning and respond by developing programs and policies to ease mental health burdens on children and their families.
They urge policymakers to:
- Prioritize meeting kids’ basic needs. Youth who grow up in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions than their peers. Children need a solid foundation of nutritious food, stable housing and safe neighborhoods — and their families need financial stability — to foster positive mental health and wellness.
- Ensure every child has access to the mental health care they need, when and where they need it. Schools should increase the presence of social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals on staff and strive to meet the 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors recommended by the American School Counselor Association, and they can work with local health care providers and local and state governments to make additional federal resources available and coordinate treatment.
- Bolster mental health care that takes into account young people’s experiences and identities. It should be trauma-informed — designed to promote a child’s healing and emotional security — and culturally relevant to the child’s life. It should be informed by the latest evidence and research and should be geared toward early intervention, which can be especially important in the absence of a formal diagnosis of mental illness.