Texas Legislature wants to double its investment in student mental health resources

New bills filed include big bumps in appropriations, as well as solutions to improving access to school-based services.

By Sara Willa Ernst, Houston Public MediaFebruary 6, 2023 10:15 am, , ,

From Houston Public Media:

If your child has a story about accessing mental health resources in Texas, send me a message at swernst@houstonpublicmedia.org or DM me on Twitter @sarawilla1.

A handful of Texas’ top leaders have pledged to make mental health a priority for the 2023 legislative session that began in early January, including Governor Greg Abbott who made it a point in his recent inaugural address.

“We will not end this session without making our schools safer,” said Abbott. “We must prioritize protecting students and staff. We must provide mental health services to students who need it. Parents must know that their children are safe when they drop them off every morning.”

The 88th Texas legislative session is on the heels of the high-profile school shooting in Uvalde that killed 21 people last May — a crisis that has put pressure on lawmakers to enact school safety policy reform. The approach by top Republicans has focused on school security measures to investing in youth mental health resources, while leaving out gun restrictions that some in Uvalde are backing.

Last June, about a month after the shooting, Texas committed over $100 million to school safety expenses, such as bulletproof shields, trainings for law enforcement and silent panic alert technology to be installed at schools. About 10 percent is going to mental health — further funding legislation passed in 2019 that responded to the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston.

Senate Bill 11 is what some mental health advocates have called a historic piece of legislation in 2019. A statewide partnership called the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium was formed, which allows pediatricians who might have limited training in behavioral health to consult with psychiatrists at 12 medical schools in Texas. These schools and community mental health providers are also working to expand training opportunities to increase the number of child psychiatry experts in the state.

The bill also set up a telemedicine network that helps schools connect with mental health care providers. Only about half of Texas school districts are part of the program so far.

The program might expand significantly in the next few years. First drafts of the appropriations bills show the Texas House and Senate more than doubling the funding for the Consortium — $280 million over the next two fiscal years.

This proposal for more funding comes as emergency rooms across the state have been overrun by kids and teens experiencing severe mental illness, what experts believe is stemming from the disruptions and stress the COVID-19 crisis has placed on children. Texas Children’s Hospital system, for example, has seen an 800 percent increase in ER visits since before the pandemic.

HB 1 and SB 1 also seek to appropriate significantly more money to loan repayments programs for mental health professionals of all types.

However, that funding doesn’t address the number of paid counselors, psychologists and social workers on school campuses — staff that is often the first line of defense when detecting signs of child mental illness.

Funding for these positions is a local decision made by school districts. Texas schools get a base allotment of $6,160 per student each year. School administrators can move that money around as they see fit and spend it on a whole host of expenses that may or may not include mental health services.

“Do I hire more counselors or do I hire more teachers?,” said Jamie Freeny, the Director at the Center for School Behavioral Health with Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

Advocates like Freeny are hoping to see the legislature create an allotment specifically designated to mental health, ensuring schools use the money on expanding on-campus resources.

“When we say we want to increase mental health supports, that doesn’t mean that we want to decrease academic supports,” Freeny said. “There should not be a competition.”

The school safety allotment, which is set to $9.72 per student in average daily attendance, is also another place where schools can find money for mental health resources.

In large part, preventing school shootings has been the driving force behind much of the funding and legislation on student mental health in Texas. Pressure is on lawmakers to take action after mass shootings, but research shows most people struggling with mental illness are not prone to committing violent acts.

Advocates have used the bump in political will to their advantage.

“It’s almost like this little secret like, ‘hey, if the state is going to use this as the reason to fund mental health, we’ll take it,'” said Bob Sanborn, the President of Children at Risk.

He believes that school safety is often conflated with mental health at the Legislature.

“To say that spending all this money on mental health is going to be the answer, it probably isn’t,” Sanborn said. “But in a state that gets so little mental health funding, it’s almost like we’ll take anything.”

Sanborn said the pandemic’s impact on student mental wellness is also weighing on some lawmakers.

The focus on improving access to school based services also shows up in a handful of other bills filed so far.

HB 1485 would require teachers to take a suicide prevention training every two years, something only required once at hire now.

HB 98 (or SB 113) allows the local mental health authority, the Harris Center in Houston, to provide care on campus. It also allows these providers to bill Medicaid if a student is already covered.

Right now, coverage for those services are limited to some special education students in Texas.

“That is fairly limiting,” said Greg Hansch, the Executive Director of the NAMI Texas. “There are students who need mental health services and fall outside that bucket of students.”

Since 2014, states have been able to make this change that Texas has been slow to adopt. 17 states have already expanded Medicaid coverage to more students.

“The impact of that will be greater access to school based mental health services,” Hansch said.

Other bills relating to student mental health are expected to be filed before the deadline on March 10th, 2023.

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