Statewide approach needed for children's mental health

This commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News.

We commend Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus for launching a new select committee to examine early identification and treatment of Texans’ mental health needs. By setting the stage for action during the 2017 legislative session, the committee can ensure more Texans have the support they need to succeed in our communities, avoiding the hardship and taxpayer expenses that result from waiting until mental health challenges become an emergency.

To meet those goals, the committee should start by addressing student mental health. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24. We can make real progress tackling mental health in our state if we focus on this age group. Unfortunately, as it stands today, years often pass between when symptoms emerge and when the young person gets treatment. Many factors contribute to this delay, including mislabeling symptoms as misbehavior or delinquency, and a lack of access to effective services.

The first step in addressing that challenge is properly identifying when children need help. The second step is connecting them with help. The good news is that treatment is effective. Two out of three children treated by community mental health centers in Texas in 2014 showed improvement. The challenge is providing treatment to more children in need.

To meet that challenge, the committee should address where Texas can do a better job of identifying and treating student mental health needs — including the juvenile justice system, Child Protective Services and school districts — and work to improve coordination among them.

In particular, schools must be at the table. Simply put, schools are where kids spend their time. They offer valuable opportunities to identify kids who show signs of concern, and connect them and their families with the help and resources they may need.

Increasingly, schools and education leaders want to be at the table. They know that untreated mental or behavioral concerns interfere with the school’s job of educating students. It’s tough to get a student to focus on algebra when she is struggling with severe depression or trauma. According to national research, as many as 44 percent of students with mental health concerns drop out of high school.

These untreated mental health challenges impact all students. In a class of 20 students, for example, two students have mental health concerns that severely interfere with their ability to function, according to national averages. When those mental health concerns show up as academic and behavioral difficulties, they can distract the teacher from meeting the needs of the rest of the class.

In the absence of state action, local communities are doing what they can. A number of schools throughout the state have started partnering with community mental health providers to offer therapy and other services on campus.

This patchwork of local effort is a good start, but it’s no substitute for a statewide plan to ensure that schools and communities have the resources they need to address student mental health. Fortunately, Texas is now poised to address this issue in a thoughtful, statewide manner. Last session, the Legislature addressed the identification of student mental health needs through multiple bills to improve training of school personnel, although it didn’t begin to work on school-based services for the students who need help.

Now that those bills have passed and there are successful local student health models to draw on, the House Select Committee on Mental Health can take the next step by working with policy experts and community leaders to develop an effective strategy to improve the mental health of our students and future leaders.

Josette Saxton is the Senior Policy Associate for Children’s Mental Health with Texans Care for Children.