New bill calls for more school-based mental health counselors

New bill calls for more school-based mental health counselors

(Calif.) All K-12 schools in California will be required to have at least one mental health professional available for students under a bill introduced Monday.

AB 8, authored by Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, would mandate a 600-to-one student-to-professional ratio, and Chu said he will request $100 million in new funding to ensure schools have enough resources to implement the requirements outlined in his bill.

“Early access to mental health support is critical to helping our kids build healthy futures,” Chu said in a statement. “Unfortunately, California has fallen behind in providing pupil support services and it is affecting our children’s well-being.

“Research shows that over 70 percent of children with mental health needs never receive treatment and the number climbs to 80 percent for children in poverty or with non-English speaking parents,” he said, calling those number unacceptable. “That’s why I’m continuing my work this year to make sure every child in California has a safe place to go for mental health support.”

A number of bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year address some aspect of student mental health needs. One requires middle and high schools to print suicide prevention hotline numbers and text crisis hotlines on the back of student identification cards, and another calls on schools to review their suicide prevention policies at least every five years and update them as needed.

A third, also authored by Chu, aims to connect students to mental health professionals earlier by requiring schools to notify students and families of available mental health services on campus or in the community at least twice during the school year.

Following a spate of school shootings in recent years, national educator and child health professional organizations have called for improving campus safety by expanding access to school-based mental health support services.

California currently ranks among the bottom states for pupil access to mental health care at school, with one school nurse for every 2,240 students, one school counselor for every 792 students, one school psychologist for every 1,265 students, and one school social worker for every 12,870 students, according to legislative reports.

Chu’s AB 8 aims to rectify that by requiring all public schools to have at least one mental health professional for every 600 pupils accessible to students on campus during school hours by the end of 2022.

Districts in which schools have fewer than 600 students would be allowed to employ at least one mental health professional to serve multiple schools or partner with a county agency or community-based organization to provide children with access to a mental health professional.

Although no dedicated funding is provided under the bill, Chu said $100 million will be requested to help schools cover the cost of hiring additional staff.

The bill is likely to receive at least some backing from governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who has expressed support for prioritizing prevention and early intervention. In a blog post published in January, Newsom said the system is set up so that 80 percent of revenue from the Mental Health Services Act goes into services for people whose mental illness is already seriously progressed, while just 20 percent goes into early diagnosis, prevention and intervention–something he would like to change.

Representatives from both the Steinberg Institute and Mental Health America of California have also applauded the effort. Zima Creason, president of Mental Health America of California, said in order to bring mental health services to young people, policymakers should provide them where children spend most of their time: in school.

“We can reduce mental health crisis by providing prevention and early intervention services and supports,” Creason said in a statement. “Although California is one of the world’s top economic leaders, we are one of the worst investors in students. If we want to see better outcomes with adults, we must better serve and support our young people.”

Mental Health America of California is a sponsor of AB 8.

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