House Hearing Puts Children's Mental Health in the Spotlight

Momentum for legislative action on children’s mental health continues to build. Following the recent discussions on children’s mental health in the Texas Senate Finance Committee and House Public Education Committee, the House Select Committee on Mental Health spent all day Tuesday taking a deep dive on some of the key issues facing Texas children and youth who struggle with mental health concerns.

Kudos to Committee Chairman Four Price for making children one of the committee’s first priorities. Speaker Joe Straus directed the committee to come up with recommendations for the state to improve identification, treatment, and outcomes of individuals experiencing mental illness. Given that 50% of chronic mental illness have their onset by age 14, taking a focused look at childhood challenges and opportunities is a good place for the committee to start its in-depth deliberations.

This Texas Observer article provides a helpful summary of the hearing. Hardcore policy wonks and advocates can also watch a video of the entire hearing here. And you can access the testimony materials shared by the invited witnesses. There’s a lot of good stuff in that video and in those documents, but here are a few highlights and take-aways:

The impact of early traumatic experiences and toxic stress was mentioned repeatedly. Doctors informed legislators of the strong link between toxic stress during childhood and lifelong mental and physical health problems. What can we do? Address trauma, change outcomes.

Another recommendation that was repeated throughout the hearing: Families of children with mental illness need support, too. When kids have mental illness, families face "sheer isolation and stress.” One smart step would be for Texas to increase access to Certified Family Partners. The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) uses these Certified Family Partners within the community mental health centers that they fund. Making family peer support services reimbursable by Medicaid would be a big help. Last session, Rep. Cindy Burkett’s bill came close to making Medicaid-funded peer support services a reality in Texas, passing the House but not the Senate. We need to make sure that ongoing efforts to fund peer support services through Medicaid does not leave family peer-to-peer services for parents of children with mental illness behind, because treating mental illness in children needs to include services that support the family.

During the hearing, several educators and community-based providers were on hand to talk about why and how schools are partnering with community resources to help address the mental health needs of their students. When an Austin ISD high school principal was asked about the impact that on-campus mental health services have had on dropout, graduation, and suspension rates, his answer was simply, "Profound.” The Texas Behavior Support Network out of the Region 4 Education Service Center shared information on how school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports can help all kids stay in school and keep learning while providing schools with an effective framework for preventing student mental health challenges and intervening when they occur. The state may not be able to put such effective practices into every school in the state in the short term, but it can and should provide more leadership and guidance to schools looking to better address their students’ mental health needs.

It wasn't on the agenda, but there were lots of good questions from committee members on how Texas cares for the mental health needs of kids in foster care. Judge John Specia, the soon-to-be retired Commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, stopped by and recommended that kids in foster care with complex issues would benefit from wraparound services, which are available in community mental health centers but not within the foster care system at this time.

When it comes to youth involved in the juvenile justice system, Judge John Hathaway of Travis County touted the benefits of providing strong community-based resources outside of the justice system that can help divert kids with mental illness from involvement with the justice system. Travis County is fortunate to have a strong Community Resource Coordination Group (CRCG) and well-established System of Care to help families meet the needs of children and youth with mental illness. As it deliberates how to help communities throughout the state do a better job of identifying and intervening in cases of mental illness, the House Select Committee on Mental Health should consider strategies to strengthening the CRCG network and Systems of Care in all parts of the state so more communities can reap the benefits Travis County has seen.

The hearing was an important step towards identifying the Legislature’s priorities for children’s mental health during the next session. We look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Price, the other committee members, and the rest of the Legislature on this critical issue.