Texans ask lawmakers for more mental health funding
This article was originally published by Spectrum 1 News Texas on August 8, 2022.
Students in Uvalde will return to school after Labor Day, but state lawmakers are still trying to understand the tragedy that unfolded on May 24 and how it could have been stopped.
The Select Committee on Youth Health & Safety met at the Capitol on Monday. Texas lawmakers heard from panelists who explained why the state needs more mental health resources in schools.
Lisa Descant is the chief executive officer with Communities In Schools (CIS) of Houston. She said CIS of San Antonio provided trauma and crisis support for more than 750 students, families and district employees in Uvalde after the tragedy. Still, more funding is needed to get CIS into more Texas schools.
“Each year, we find that the demand throughout the state exceeds our financial capacity,” Descant said.
Several panelists said Texas could provide more mental health care to places such as Uvalde by expanding Medicaid. Federal reimbursement is available for providing in-school services to all Medicaid-enrolled students, but the state has not opted in.
Becca Harkleroad, with the Texas Association of School Nurses Organization, said the state needs to submit a Medicaid plan amendment to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) outlining what’s needed and who will be responsible. Harkleroad said this does not aim to expand Medicaid or eligibility. Instead, it would allow schools to access federal-matching dollars that they could use to provide care to their Medicaid-enrolled students.
“This proposal would heavily benefit our rural and underserved communities, as they are likely to have a higher rate of Medicaid-enrolled students,” Harkleroad said. “This would maximize the effectiveness of our schools’ current investments into the critically important services that they provide to their students.”
In her testimony, Harkleroad quoted former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders: “We can’t educate children who are not healthy, and we can’t keep them healthy if they’re not educated.”
Several panelists agreed that an array of solutions are needed for a variety of mental health issues. Early intervention with counseling and creating a culture of speaking up in schools are both important. Dr. Alvia Baldwin, the director of guidance and counseling with Alief ISD, said talking about the negative impacts of social media can also be helpful.
“We really have to inform our parents, our schools, and our students that what you’re seeing is not real, and it’s impacting your mental health,” Dr. Baldwin said.
One of the biggest needs is the workforce. More mental health professionals are needed across the state.
Andy Keller is the president and CEO of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. He said it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to increase mental health resources in Texas.
“The thing about these costs is that even if we throw all that money out there today, we don’t have the workforce, we don’t have the training, the organizations have to start it up. It’s going to take years to build this,” Keller said. “So probably in the first year, you’re talking about $100 million in the first year. Over time, it’s going to be a few $100 million. But it’s an investment we need to make because we’re losing more kids than we’ve ever lost before, and it’s a health crisis that we really do need to take seriously.”
He stressed that mental health issues and violence are not always correlated.
“Humans do violence all the time,” he said. “We do violence for good reasons to protect people we love, to protect a country. We do violence for deranged reasons. And being deranged, being evil, is not a mental illness. It’s not something we could treat. All sorts of people who don’t have mental illnesses do evil things. So we have to be really specific when we’re thinking about what are the various things that can contribute to somebody acting violently. And there’s a lot of risk factors out there. And some mental illnesses do increase some risks, but mental illness as a whole does not statistically correlate with more violence.”
Throughout the committee hearing, panelists stressed how important it is to intervene in school. Many panelists called schools the “first line of defense,” noting that students often notice when a peer is exhibiting concerning behaviors. That’s why students should speak up even if it’s hard.
“Students don’t want to get other students in trouble, even ones that they think maybe are doing odd things or dangerous things,” Keller said. “They want to know people can get help. They want to know people can be made safe. So there’s a lot of education we need to do in our schools.”
Keller said Texas can and will help students and families that are struggling.
“People need to have hope that we can do something about this,” Keller said. “And I think that’s what people need to hear because otherwise it’s super discouraging to just see all the pain that people are experiencing right now.”
Many panelists said they looked forward to working with lawmakers in the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.