Merkley, Clark introduce mental health care legislation for every student in America

Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act last week to provide school-based mental health services in schools across America.

The legislation was introduced after National Suicide Prevention Week. Ninety percent of youth who committed suicide had a mental illness, according to a press release from Merkley’s office.

“Mental health care is essential health care, full stop. 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,” Merkley said in a prepared statement. “That’s unacceptable, and it’s putting the lives of our children at risk. Now is the time for Congress to commit to ensuring that every child in America has access to quality mental health care.”

A new Oregon law, signed by Gov. Kate Brown in August, allows students to take mental health days without risking an unexcused absence. Utah enacted a similar law last year.

A report by the Oregon Health Authority revealed that Oregon’s suicide rate was at a record high in 2017 when 825 people killed themselves. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oregonians between 15 and 24, and the third leading case of death for Oregon children between the ages of 5 and 14.

Mental illness affects 20% of American youth and approximately half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. More than a third of students with a mental illness drop out of school.

“We know that for kids to succeed, schools can’t just be about test scores,” Clark said in a press release. “We must invest directly in school nurses, social workers, and counselors who are central to promoting the long-term health and welfare of our children. School should be a place where all kids feel safe and supported.”

Youth with access to mental health services in schools are ten times more likely to seek care, according to a press release.

The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor, but currently, the national average is 455 students per counselor, according to a press release. For school psychologists, the recommended ratio is 500 to 700 students per provider, and 250 to 1 for school social workers.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said in a press release that the Oregon average is 511 students per counselor.

“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 in the press release. “This bill would provide that access by supporting schools’ efforts to have counselor-to-student ratios that are recognized as essential to good mental health. I will always fight to ensure mental health is treated every bit as seriously as physical health.”

The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would tackle this by providing grants to states to ensure every school can meet the recommended counselor-to-student ratios. Merkley and Clark are requesting an initial authorization of $5 billion for the first year.

The bill bears the same name as a similar act that was funded under No Child Left Behind. The newly introduced legislation would provide funding for all schools, where the prior bill required an application.

If approved, the bill would establish two 5-year renewable grant programs, where states would receive no less than $1 million as a base to provide additional mental health in schools. Additional federal funding would be needs-based.