Free Lance-Star op-ed 05/24/2022

Commentary: Time to address our children’s mental health is now

The way students learn across the commonwealth has drastically changed over the last two years, but the mental health challenges they face remain consistent. Prior to the pandemic, one in five Virginia children suffered from ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other diagnosable mental health conditions.

The pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues across the commonwealth and across the country—a Kaiser Health Foundation study showed 31% of parents reported that their children’s mental health had worsened. Further, 37% of high school-aged children stated they had poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a survey published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2022. These challenges are even more acute in communities of color; Black and Hispanic students are half as likely to receive mental health services as white students.

Our kids are hurting, and we must act now to provide critical resources to support them.

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, we can truly honor Mental Health Awareness Month by passing key funding in the state budget to provide support for Virginia youth.

Less than 10% of Virginia’s systemwide behavioral health system budget is dedicated to services for youth. With an historic budget surplus, we should begin to fill the gaps left by years of underfunding mental health services. That means making investments at all levels: from the school system to the behavioral health system to community programs. Critically, we must help connect the school systems with resources in their communities, as students face new challenges.

First, budget negotiators should fund a new $10 million School-Based Mental Health Integration Pilot. This program will create grants for schools to bring in community-based mental health services to support students.

Second, our budget should create a new Behavioral Health Commission task force to study the school-based mental health system and what can be done to better provide mental health clinical interventions in schools. This task force would be led by parents, students, teachers, administrators, school-based and community mental health professionals, and leaders in relevant state government agencies.

We also must take action to provide increased resources for school-based support staff: guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists and other professionals within our K-12 schools. During Mental Health Awareness Month, we honor the service of the mental health workforce in our communities, and we should commit to giving them the resources and staffing they need to help our young people.

Third, we should pass a provision in the Senate budget that makes significant progress by partially lifting the 13-year-old budget cap on state funding for school support staff enacted during the 2008-09 recession. From 2009–2020, Virginia schools added 63,000 students, while the number of school support staff positions dropped by 1,700. This has led to school support staff being overburdened and unable to support increasing mental health needs of students. This budget amendment, which I have championed for several years, would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to school support staff.

Fourth, negotiators are also currently considering funding for Senate Bill 490, which would raise the standard of support staff per student from 3-per-1,000 to 4-per-1,000. This would mean that students in every school in Virginia would have a baseline standard of access to the counseling they need.

Fifth, budget negotiators can approve and fund The Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention. Included in both the Senate budget and my Senate Bill 487, the center would be a hub for research, best practices, and strategies for the implementation of firearm violence intervention and prevention programs—including community-based intervention and addressing the suicide-by-gun epidemic.

Taken together, these five measures in the budget could make a major dent in the youth mental health crisis. Our kids are hurting. Decisions being made right now present effective paths to helping our kids get the mental health resources they need. There should be no higher priority in the budget than our children’s future.