The 84th Texas Legislature and Children's Mental Well-Being

This is one in a series of blog posts about our 2015 legislative agenda

Click here to read our policy agenda one-pager for children's mental well-being.

"Are the children well?”

This question, posed by a recent report on the mental wellness of the nation’s young people, got me thinking. In the past few years, Texas has taken some pretty big steps to help more kids with serious mental illness get the right kind of help, at the right place. The state increased funding for public mental health services. It’s helping more kids with serious emotional disturbances receive intensive "wraparound” services in their communities. Texas opened up access to intensive residential treatment for children. And the state has taken steps to train teachers to recognize warning signs when a student may be struggling with a mental health concern and know what they can do to help.

But what about children without serious mental illness – are they well? One in five children has a mental disorder, but most of them do not meet the state’s criteria to receive public mental health services. Adverse experiences in childhood are even more common, and we know these experiences put children at risk for many negative health and social outcomes, in both the short and long term.

And what about kids without a mental health diagnosis or history of trauma? Mental health isn’t just an absence of mental illness. Being mentally healthy encompasses being able to handle the normal stress that life brings, while reaching one’s potential and contributing to the community. With less than 20% of adults achieving this state of optimal mental health, according to estimates, we should start paying more attention to building stronger mental health foundations in childhood.

So while Texans Care for Children will continue to advocate for policies that address the needs of kids with mental illness, we also turn our attention to fostering the mental health of all Texas kids. Here are some things I’ll be advocating for this session to help Texas move in the right direction:

  • Make prevention and early intervention a priority. Many of the big challenges kids face – mental illness, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, delinquency, school dropout, and suicide – are interconnected and often occur at the same time. Yet we keep the planning, delivery, and evaluation of prevention and early intervention efforts targeting these challenges isolated from each other. This "siloing” just thwarts the impacts of many programs, wasting opportunities for kids, communities, and the state. Texas needs a high-level prevention and early intervention strategy that spans our child-serving systems, similar to what Colorado has done. The legislature can start by directing the Health and Human Services Commission to develop a plan to coordinate, measure, and report on prevention and early intervention programs that target common risk factors, regardless of the system that is providing the program.
  • Offer schools leadership and guidance in creating learning climates that help students learn and be well. Texas should take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice and align its own coordinated school health efforts with the recommended "Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” approach that uses a collaborative approach to promote student learning and health. The state can also help schools create safe and supportive climates conducive to learning by helping them align services and supports like social emotional learning, trauma sensitivity, and positive behavioral approaches to discipline.
  • Help communities provide services children and youth with complex mental health challenges and their families need. When community agencies plan and work together in partnership with families to provide children with a coordinated continuum of care that targets their specific needs, they have a better chance of staying in their own homes and schools. Delivering individualized, family-driven care in this way prevents kids from entering more restrictive settings such as hospitals, residential treatment, and child welfare or justice settings – places where treatment is not only more costly, but where it also tends to be less effective than care that is provided within the community. Texas can help by fostering a workforce that can deliver specialized home- and community-based services that families report are instrumental to their child’s improvement, but which may be hard to find in some parts of the state. It can also shore up the state’s Community Resource Coordination Group (CRCG) network through enhanced training, technical assistance, and access to flexible funds for these county-based interagency groups as they develop a coordinated response to helping children with complex problems that require services from multiple agencies.