As students at Yale, we have seen many of our friends experience mental health crises. This is not new for us: a whopping 49.5% of adolescents experience mental health issues, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
As adolescents ourselves, we have experienced firsthand a mental healthcare system in disarray, where those who need the most help are ignored. In most cases, the amount of mental health resources and funding deemed “adequate” is nowhere near what’s needed.
How is a high school student suffering from a mental illness supposed to get help from adults who underestimate their condition? How is a child, barely of middle school age, supposed to understand the emotions they are feeling when an adult does not know how to provide guidance? In the worst of cases, how can one expect a teenager to figure out on their own how to cope with the loss of a dear friend to suicide? Our system leaves children and young adults floundering with few resources and a feeling that they have no one to turn to.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed mental healthcare and behavioral services across our state to the brink, exposing deep fissures in Connecticut’s mental health system as surges of children in need of urgent mental healthcare have flocked to emergency rooms and school nurses. In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an urgent warning about the “need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.”
Despite a clear need for expanded mental health services, Connecticut currently has few standards and poor funding for trauma-informed mental health care and teacher training, especially in schools. There are also glaring inequities in who can access mental health care in Connecticut, and in who is providing it, with racial minorities highly underrepresented across mental health practice. Connecticut rules also currently prohibit mental telehealth by out-of-state providers, blocking an important means to alleviate the burden on in-state providers.
H.B. 5001 and S.B. 2, two bills currently awaiting votes in the Connecticut General Assembly, would address the growing mental health needs of Connecticut’s youth. From instituting universal pre-K in S.B. 2, to improving the availability of mental health resources to children and teenagers in H.B. 5001, these two bills would demonstrate a newfound and welcome prioritization of youth mental health.
H.B. 5001 would provide unprecedented scholarships and student loan forgiveness for LGBTQ+, racial minority, and disabled applicants for mental health licensure. As of 2015, a staggering 86% of U.S. psychologists were white, while only 4% were African American. This is due to a combination of the racial wealth gap and the sky-high costs of social work education, and H.B. 5001 is a justice-oriented investment in diverse mental health providers from marginalized and low-income backgrounds.
A workforce of therapists and mental health professionals that actually represents the demographics of Connecticut is quite important, as many studies have shown that Black patients frequently have worse outcomes with non-Black therapists who lack the historical and cultural fluency necessary to provide compassionate, quality care. At the same time, H.B. 5001 would institute trauma-informed education and new grant programs to fund mental health initiatives at schools across Connecticut, along with a newly-established statewide Trauma Coordinator position.
S.B. 2 would institute universal pre-K for all Connecticut children ages 3 and up, which would bring many benefits ranging from higher earnings to lower crime and unemployment, as well as better mental health outcomes in middle and high school.
These benefits, when aggregated, add up to more than $83 billion per year, especially when including the benefits that quality child care through pre-K has on increased maternal workforce participation.
In addition, S.B. 2 mandates later high school start times, which may seem trivial, but is actually extremely consequential for supporting the physical and mental health needs of students. Later high school start times allow adolescents, whose biological clocks are naturally primed to stay up later, to sleep longer and achieve the recommended sleep amount of eight to 10 hours per night. Lack of sleep is incredibly common among high school students and is associated with severe risks including obesity, alcohol consumption, tobacco & drug use, and poor academic performance, as well as depression and mental health problems.
These are just a few of the many meaningful provisions of H.B. 5001 and S.B. 2, which will make monumental strides toward addressing the mental health needs of Connecticut youth. Relaying the cries of adolescents everywhere, we are begging for legislators to take these bills over the finish line. Doing so is imperative to protect the health of our generation and the future of our state.
Abe Baker-Butler and José Sarmiento are first-year students in Ezra Stiles College at Yale University in New Haven.