In the midst of a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth, Connecticut doctors will have more opportunities to connect kids and young adults to mental health professionals with new funding available through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, officials said Monday.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who led a push for the bill, was joined by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Jahana Hayes, and Carole Johnson, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s director, at a roundtable in New Britain on Monday. The event included Connecticut providers and officials from the New Britain Wheeler Family Health and Wellness Center.
The federal legislation provides $80 million to help pediatricians and health providers at schools and emergency departments connect with mental health specialists and $60 million to train primary care doctors in mental health care, among other investments.
Previously, the program only included primary care providers; the money for schools and emergency departments is an expansion.
“[This] represents quite possibly the biggest investment in kids’ mental health since the Affordable Care Act,” Murphy said Monday.
Since the pandemic, more kids are reporting struggles with anxiety, depression and eating disorders, providers said.
Toward the end of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about a national youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Connecticut lawmakers prioritized the issue during the last legislative session, introducing three sweeping bills that aimed to address the crisis.
“What families need, what families are asking for, is support for the mental health needs of children,” Johnson said. Her agency exists under the umbrella of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The Pediatric Mental Health Care Access program was created in 2016 through the Mental Health Reform Act. The federal bill extends it another five years.
Connecticut’s program, which is called Access Mental Health CT, covers children and young adults age 18 to 22.
The program will provide funds for young people to have immediate mental health telehealth consultations when they visit their primary care doctors.
“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of anxiety, depression, disordered eating, drug use and drug abuse,” said Dr. Greg Germain, a pediatrician at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. “This is overwhelming us but thank god for Access Mental Health.”
Dr. Richard Miller, the medical director for the Access Mental Health CT program at Wheeler, said in addition to providing screenings, answering questions or helping to coordinate care, the program provides mental health training and webinars to primary care providers.
“Connecticut is well positioned to be sure that we are understanding that children’s behavioral health is health care,” said Vannessa Dorantes, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families.
Monday’s roundtable was one of a couple of efforts in recent weeks to publicize the new program. About 85% of pediatricians in Connecticut use the Access program, roundtable participants said.
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said programs like this would have been integral to her experience as a teacher. Sometimes when students were in crises, there weren’t enough resources available, she said.
“It is the most hollowing feeling when you don’t know where to direct them to find that help,” Hayes said.
The mental health support is part of a larger effort to ensure people are safe, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. He referenced the state’s red flag law, which establishes a legal procedure to temporarily take someone’s guns if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The law is a step in the direction toward a goal of treating mental health as a part of holistic health care, Murphy said.
“This is what families need,” Hayes said. “This is what kids need.”