Lawmakers back bill to boost student mental health

Citing a shortage of mental health counselors in U.S. public schools, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley re-introduced legislation aimed at bolstering mental health services to students across the country.

Merkley, along with Massachusetts Sen. Katherine Clark, introduced the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, which would create a grant fund program to help schools add additional mental health services for students. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and was re-introduced to Congress this year.

“Mental health care is essential health care, full stop,” Merkley said. “But as I meet with educators from across Oregon, one of the top concerns I hear is that our schools aren’t receiving the funding they need to deliver the counseling services students deserve. That’s unacceptable, and it’s putting the lives of our children at risk.”

The legislation was co-sponsored by fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Angus King, I-Maine, Doug Jones, D-Ala., Robert Casey, D-Pa., and Chris Coons, D-Del.

Lawmakers pointed to recommendations from the American School Counselor Association, which advocates for a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 students per counselor. The national average is 455 students per counselor and continues to rise, according to the association. For school psychologists, the recommended ratio is 500-to-700 students per provider and 250-to-1 for school social workers.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness affects 20% of American youths, with roughly half of all lifetime cases beginning by age 14. The alliance also indicates that 90% of youths who die by suicide had a mental illness.

The proposed school counseling bill ollows two new laws in Oregon aimed at improving mental health for students. Senate Bill 52, better known as Adi’s Act, requires schools to develop suicide prevention plans. This year, House Bill 2191 went into effect, expanding the definition of sick days for students to include excused absences for mental health-related reasons.

“Students, teachers and counselors across Oregon tell me just how much young people facing challenges at home and in the classroom need better access to mental health care in schools,” Wyden said of the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act.