Democratic lawmakers on Monday introduced an ambitious package of bills aimed to help teens in crisis, including funding more mental health professionals in high schools and allowing students three excused absences for mental health reasons.
As American teens are more depressed, anxious and suicidal than ever before, a national report recently found that Delaware schools do not have enough trained staff to help students struggling with their mental health.
About 6,000 students experienced major depressive episodes in the past year without receiving treatment, according to America’s School Mental Health Report Card by the Hopeful Futures Campaign.
‘These children need us’:A Delaware mother’s grief turns to action for students in crisis
The Department of Education, during its budget hearing this year, called for $30 million in funding for mental health services. Education Secretary Mark Holodick said at the time that the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has made some students’ behavior “extreme and difficult” for teachers to manage.
The Legislature in recent years has added more mental health resources to schools, particularly in elementary and middle schools.
Table of Contents
What are the bills and what do they aim to do?
This package consists of six bills. Here’s a brief summary of each of the bills, which are slated to be filed April 25:
How to get help:What is 988, the new mental health crisis hotline rolling out in Delaware, nationwide?
- House Bill 200: Adds new positions for school counselors, social workers and school psychologists in Delaware high schools. It’s looking to lower the ratio of students to mental health practitioners. It will also include a reimbursement program for school employees and an incentive to encourage staff to gain mental health licenses or certifications.
- House Bill 6: Provides funding for a district mental health professional and district mental health coordinator, which lawmakers say would help districts and charter schools better identify students with mental health issues and coordinate their care.
- House Bill 3: Students would receive three excused absences per school year for mental or behavioral health reasons. Any student taking more than two of these excused absences a year would then be referred to a behavioral health specialist.
- House Bill 4: Students would have access to support and services following a school-related traumatic event or the death of a member of the school community. The Department of Education would be responsible for covering the cost of grief counseling for students. This bill, if it passes, will be named Nolan’s Law, in honor of Nolan Witman, a Delaware teen who died by suicide last year.
- House Bill 5: This changes how Medicaid covers behavioral health services in school settings. Right now, Medicaid-covered, school-based services are available only to those with an individualized educational program. The bill would allow for medically necessary behavioral health services without the need for an IEP.
- House Bill 7: Implementing a Medicaid enhancement fee that would incentivize behavioral health facilities to admit pediatric patients in need of emergency mental health care, as well as increase the overall bed count available to these patients.
Where is the funding coming from?
The biggest obstacle, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst noted Monday, will be convincing lawmakers to fund this.
“It comes down to money,” said Longhurst, prime sponsor of this package. “And the only thing that holds these bills from getting passed is to show that the money is worth, that the investment is worth it.”
The majority leader estimated that HB 200, the bill to put more mental health professionals in schools, will likely cost $20 million per year. The implementation of this will take about three years, with the schools in low-income areas starting to hire these counselors and social workers first.
The fiscal notes, which determine how much the legislation will cost, for most of the bills are still underway, Longhurst said.
When asked if Gov. John Carney supports this package, the majority leader said the bills have been sent to his office for review. She also added: “It all comes down to the money in the budget.”
“We either pay now, or we pay later,” she said during her remarks. “And I’m always one who goes upstream, not downstream. And today we’re going to continue going upstream.”