The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday aimed at expanding school-based mental health clinics throughout Connecticut.
If it passes the Senate and is signed into law, this legislation would have the Department of Public Health, in collaboration with the Department of Children and Families and the Connecticut Association of School-Based Health Centers, conduct a study no later than Jan. 1, 2022, identifying school districts in the state that do not have accessible mental health resources for students and provide them with options to integrate school-based mental health clinics or centers in the area.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools last spring, health care providers have reported a growing crisis in children’s mental health care. In Connecticut’s pediatric emergency departments, an increasing number of kids are showing up for behavioral health needs, leading to an overflow of young patients with long waits for inpatient and outpatient care.
“A lot of people are very concerned because there’s so many children who have been exposed to trauma. There’s upset and uncertainty,” Rep. Mary Welander D-Orange, vice-chair of the children’s committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, said during an interview on Wednesday. “I always think about the fact that my family, personally, was very fortunate in this process of the pandemic. We didn’t have to worry about our house, or food, or insurance, we were all healthy, and it was still really hard. So, for children who are facing real big challenges, trying to figure it out, there’s going to be a lot of people who are just going to be needing a little bit extra care to move forward.”
Welander said the measure would give districts without mental health services the option to decide what’s best for schools through plans presented by DCF and DPH. She said there is no cost attached to this bill because the study will identify the needs and the options for paying to address them.
Last week, the bill was amended to address concerns about possible overlap in existing services provided by DCF and DPH. The bill now states that DCF will oversee school-based clinics and DPH, which currently funds 79 school-based health sites and 12 expanded school health sites, will oversee expanded health services in districts that choose to integrate either.
“Some districts are going to say ‘We absolutely want to have medical care and dental and mental health services in our school building,’ and if they want to do that, here are the steps, here are the providers that you can partner with, and that would be overseen by DPH,” Welander said. “But if they only have a small room and they are seeing a mental health crisis in their schools, and they just want to take that first step and this is the easiest way forward, then the district can create just the standard and mental health clinic, and that would be under DCF.”
The bill received bipartisan support, but Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, and Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, raised concerns on the floor Wednesday regarding an existing state statute that allows children six visits to school-based health clinic without notifying parents.
Welander said the legislation does not address this or change existing statutes and said the specific concern is “a very rare occurrence.”
The bill passed with a 143-4 vote.
“We all know that the pandemic really did unveil all the needs that we have in our schools to provide more services for our children. One in four children are identified as needing more mental health services, and our schools do a fabulous job in helping identify those children,” said Education Committee Ranking Member Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, on the House floor Wednesday. “This proposal, with looking at an additional plan to go out to try to fill those gaps in areas where they do not have school-based health clinics, I think is going to do much good.”