Why the New House Mental Health Committee Should Add Students to Its Agenda

[A previous version of this blog post incorrectly stated that there were no members of the Public Education Committee on the new mental health committee.]

We commend Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus for launching a new select committee to take a look at issues related to mental health and substance abuse and make recommendations aimed at identifying illnesses early and improving the delivery of mental health care. We will work with the Committee to ensure that the mental health of children – and particularly students – is one of the centerpieces of the Committee’s work.

So, why is it so important for the Committee to include students in its work?

First, to meet the goal of identifying and intervening early in cases of emerging mental illness, schools must be part of the solution.

One half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; 75% by age 24. That means we can make real progress tackling mental health in our state if we focus on youth in this age group. Unfortunately, as it stands today, years often pass between when symptoms first emerge and when the young person first 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 to addressing that challenge is properly identifying when children need help. The second step is connecting them with help. Providing assistance earlier is more effective and less costly than waiting until youth are older. In fact, two out of three children treated by community mental health centers in Texas improved functioning.

To improve early identification and intervention, we must have schools 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.

Second, to meet our state’s educational goals, we must address our students’ mental health.

Schools get this. They know that untreated mental or behavioral concerns interfere with the school’s job of educating students. It’s tough to get students to focus on algebra when they are struggling with depression or trauma. That's why some schools in Texas are partnering with community mental health providers to offer services in their schools.

Momentum is building. Williamson County recently held its 5th Annual School Mental Health Conference, where it brought together schools, mental health providers, researchers, and families to learn and talk about ways we can work to improve the mental well-being of students. Mental Health America of Greater Houston is doing great work bringing together several school districts in and surrounding Harris County to identify needs, share information on effective practices, and build capacity in schools through its School Behavioral Health Initiative. Texas can also learn from successful efforts and lessons learned throughout the country, many of the highlighted earlier this month at the 20th Annual Advancing School Mental Health Conference in New Orleans.

It’s time for a statewide strategy to address students’ mental health.

This patchwork of local effort is no substitute for a statewide plan to ensure that schools and communities have the resources they need to address student mental health. But Texas is now poised to address this issue in a thoughtful, statewide manner. Last session the Legislature began to address the identification of student mental health needs through multiple bills to improve training of school personnel, although it didn’t begin to work on services for the students who need help. Now that those bills have passed, and there are successful local 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.