The mental health crisis among children continues to worsen. As many as 6% of children between the ages of six and 17 live and struggle daily with serious mental health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a survey published in 2017. In 2018, a Pew Research Centers study found 70% of teens consider anxiety and depression to be a major issue for their fellow students, with 60% under pressure to achieve academically and 30%  struggling with social anxiety. These numbers have grown since the publication of these studies, with the COVID-19 pandemic worsening conditions and outcomes.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor

Addressing the challenges presented and made worse in this moment requires an adamant and concentrated effort to bring about improved outcomes for these children. In recent years, laudably, mental health has become a topic discussed openly and plainly among the millions of people living with their conditions every day. We owe it to today’s youth to make sure that raised awareness results in real-world change. I’m proud to say Senate Bill 2, passed in the early morning of May 6, will create positive change, despite its blanket opposition by Republicans.

The adoption of the “mental health wellness day” in schools is a simple, effective method by which this legislation reorients how youth mental health is approached. For many students, the pressures of succeeding in high school and thoughts of the future can compound already existing mental health issues, leaving many struggling. The “mental health wellness day,” an excused absence that students will be allowed to claim twice in a school year, allows them to focus on their own needs during difficult and overwhelming times. Not only that, but providing students with a much-needed reprieve to focus on their mental wellbeing works to reduce the stigmas those with mental illness often face. For some students battling mental health issues, simply letting them know they are not alone will provide significant relief.

Further, the legislation seeks to infuse learning with increased focus on individual needs by adopting social and emotional learning practices. Social-emotional learning reorients the learning process, allowing students to consider their own emotions and social connections with specific focus on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. By increasing students’ mindfulness of themselves, others, and the way they interact with the world, this education strategy has been found to improve students’ performances by double digits. It has even improved economic mobility among students; one study from the American Enterprise Institute in 2015 found social-emotional learning can decrease the likelihood of living in public housing or receiving public assistance. In 2013, 93 percent of teachers surveyed wanted a greater focus on this type of education in their schools, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. It’s gratifying to know their wishes will be granted.

An aspect of this legislation questioned on the state Senate floor centered around its ending of a policy where parents must be informed if their child receives more than six outpatient mental health sessions in a year, with some on the Senate floor insinuating parents know what’s best for their children. While parents have the right to make decisions for their children, that doesn’t necessarily correlate to the former policy being effective. Several factors could contribute to worsening outcomes from such a disclosure, including inadvertent revelations of private information like sexual orientation, or even a parent or guardian simply deciding the child shouldn’t receive such services, despite the child’s wishes. As well, safeguards are in place to ensure such notification remains viable, if necessary, for a minor’s well-being; this simply further contributes to the legislation’s focus on improving mental health outcomes for youth.

Fighting the scourge of youth mental health issues will require much more change than Senate Bill 2 provides, but this legislation is a big step in the right direction to improve outcomes among our state’s youngest residents. Fighting for better mental health requires approaching mental health with the seriousness and respect our children and teens deserve.

Dr. Saud Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor, represents Connecticut’s 3rd Senate District — East Hartford, East Windsor, South Windsor and part of Ellington.

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