Advocates for the treatment and prevention of psychiatric illness among children and adolescents are calling on Congress to enact bipartisan legislation that would fund programs in schools nationwide to achieve those mental health goals.
The Mental Health in Schools Act (HR 2531) was the centerpiece of lobbying efforts by many advocates during National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day in early May.
The legislation, which has languished in committee since it was introduced in May 2009, is needed to ensure that children's mental health treatment and prevention programs are funded at schools throughout the country, according to advocates.
"Teachers are already burdened with teaching children, so they cannot also address these problems in their students," said Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), at a briefing in May by children's mental health advocates for members of Congress and their staffs. APA was one of the briefing's organizers.
Recent success in recruiting more members of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill as cosponsors has increased the likelihood that it will advance soon.
Julio Abreu, senior director of government affairs for Mental Health America, said the need for the legislation was highlighted in a February 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine that pointed out that the age of onset for many mental illnesses is about 14 in approximately 50 percent of cases. Further, about 80 percent of the children who need treatment do not receive it, he noted.
"If we invest in these [treatment] programs early on, there are savings to other programs later," Abreu said about research that has found that many children in the juvenile-justice system have untreated mental illnesses.
Abreu cited the school legislation as one of the key priorities of mental health advocates during the remaining months of the current Congress.
APA has also registered its support for this legislation. "Undoubtedly, healthier students learn and perform better, and a key component of academic success is addressing students' mental health," wrote a group of mental health advocacy groups, including APA, in support of an earlier version of the bill.
The legislation aims to expand nationwide a pilot mental health program that has been implemented over the last nine years in eight public schools in Los Angeles. That prevention-focused program, according to Napolitano, has been successful in preventing any documented suicide attempts by students at those schools, despite the fact that 33 percent of students who were chosen to participate had attempted suicide before enrolling in the program.
The legislation that advocates support would expand mental health programs in public schools, only half of which provide such services, through formal partnerships with community mental health entities. It would authorize $200 million in program grants annually for Fiscal 2010 through Fiscal 2014.
The school initiative may help address another priority for advocates of children's mental health: increasing the number of professionals trained to prevent and treat psychiatric illness among the children of active-duty service members and military veterans. Increasing stress on children whose parents have been deployed or returned with combat-related mental disorders has led to psychiatric problems in many of these youngsters. In addition to funding training for school personnel to respond to mental health issues that military families face, the legislation would fund "resiliency training" for students to prevent their developing mental health problems when faced with stresses relating to a parent's military service.
However, there remains a "pervasive shortage" of mental health clinicians with experience in providing needed mental illness "prevention and intervention strategies" for military families, said Janice Cooper, Ph.D., interim director of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), during the May 6 legislative briefing.
"Family support is a critical factor for families left behind in deployment," Cooper said.
A 2007 report by the NCCP found that school-based mental health programs that included personnel trained in recognizing and treating psychiatric illness in children of members of the military have been effective in schools with concentrations of those students, including schools near military bases.
The mental health needs of the children of active-duty and retired military members have been one of the lobbying focuses of members of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Stephen Cozza, M.D., an AACAP member and a former Army colonel, provided a special briefing for congressional staff as part of the early May events that highlighted the emotional and psychological needs of children of combat veterans.
More information on National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day is posted at <www.nmha.org/go/childhood-depression-awareness-day>. Information on AACAP's legislative advocacy is posted at <www.aacap.org/cs/advocacy>.