Responding to Newtown, House passes children’s mental health bill

The House on Friday unanimously passed a proposal aimed at better coordinating mental health services for young people, a measure described as a response to the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Supporters of the bill, which previously passed the Senate unanimously and now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, said it complements the legislation passed earlier this year in response to the Newtown shootings. That proposal contained several mental health measures, but they focused primarily on adults and young people aged 16 and up.

Mental health experts had been hoping that lawmakers would also focus on preventing mental health problems and intervening early, arguing that focusing on very young children could help avoid more difficult problems later. Advocates for mental health and early childhood interventions praised the concepts behind the bill. But some have wondered how effective it can be because it commits no money to expanding mental health resources.

It will take years for the goals of the proposal to be realized, said Rep. Whitt Betts, R-Bristol, but ultimately, the aim is to make it easy for parents and schools to know where to turn if they need resources to help children at an early stage.

Betts said many people felt that the main issue connected to the Newtown massacre was mental illness.

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is our response, our collective answer in trying to address that,” he said.

The bill will be one of the significant ones passed this year, predicted Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, whose district includes Newtown.

“At the heart of the matter, to get to young children who may have mental health and behavioral health issues, it’s so important because we know that we can change the tide of their lives,” she said.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who co-chairs the children’s committee, said the proposal puts a “laser-like focus on prevention,” and seeks to break down barriers that keep various parts of the service system from working together.

Urban cited three statistics: About two-thirds of youths in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. About 1 in 10 young people have mental disorders so severe it impairs their functioning. And 44 percent of youths in high school with mental health problems drop out.

The bill requires coordination between mental health agencies, schools and emergency mobile psychiatric services, and for a coordinated system of home visitation programs that serve vulnerable families. Experts consider home visitation programs to be important resources for preventing problems and intervening early. Some lawmakers sought to clarify that home visitation programs would be voluntary, for families that request them.

The bill also calls for increased training in mental health and child development for pediatricians and child care providers. There would also be more training for mental health providers in understanding and treating trauma, which is considered a major cause of preventable mental illness. Often, young people who have experienced trauma are misdiagnosed and receive treatment that doesn’t address the underlying trauma. But experts say prompt treatment can prevent long-term negative effects.

Programs that receive public funds for mental health of children would have to report annually on measures related to treatment availability. And there would be a task force on the effects of nutrition, genetics, toxins, psychotropic drugs and complementary and alternative treatments on the mental health of children.

Other parts of the bill require outside funds, including a public information campaign about children’s mental health and training for school resource officers to ensure that young people with mental health issues are not victimized or disproportionately referred to the juvenile justice system. A study on whether young people with mental health needs are entering the juvenile justice or correction systems would be conducted only if outside funds are secured.

About $125,000 in private money has been secured already, Urban said, but officials are still looking for additional funds.

Several lawmakers praised the work of Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, a freshman Democrat from Meriden who co-chairs the Committee on Children. She developed the bill with the input of experts and worked to ensure that the bill would require nearly no state money, a key consideration in a tight budget year. Nonpartisan analysts projected that there could be less than $1,000 in expenses related to the task force’s work.