Following the tragic mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, policymakers at the national and state levels are considering policies both to restrict access to guns and to increase access to mental health and student support services. Most notably, President Obama released a broad set of proposals in mid-January that included steps to increase the number of counselors, psychologists, social workers and resource officers available in schools; to foster a national dialogue on mental health services aimed at reducing the stigma associated with seeking treatment; and to issue final regulations implementing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act to improve private sector coverage of behavioral health services. Although gun control proposals such as restricting access to assault rifles and large ammunition clips are facing fierce opposition from pro-gun groups, proposals to increase access to mental health services appear so far to be enjoying relatively broad support. However, increasing public spending on mental health services will be difficult in the current legislative environment, which assumes deep spending cuts must take place to reduce federal deficits.
Several aspects of the president’s proposal are of interest to counselors, and to school counselors in particular, including:
- A new Comprehensive School Safety program that would give $150 million to school districts and law enforcement agencies to support the hiring of as many as 1,000 additional school resource officers, school counselors, school social workers and school psychologists. In addition to hiring staff, school districts could use funds from the program to purchase school safety equipment, conduct threat assessments and train “crisis intervention teams.”
- A commitment to release, later this year, a set of model emergency management plans (EMPs) and best practices for use by schools and universities, and a call for Congress to provide $30 million in one-time grants to help states work with school districts to develop EMPs.
- A request for a new $50 million initiative to help schools train “teachers and other school staff” to implement school climate improvement strategies. The administration proposes that this initiative will help 8,000 schools nationwide to develop school climate programs.
- A new “Project AWARE” (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) initiative to provide training for teachers and other adults to recognize young people who need help. This initiative would include $15 million for training for teachers and others who deal with youth, and $40 million to help school districts work with law enforcement, mental health agencies and other organizations to ensure that students with signs of mental illness get referred to treatment.
- New funding of $50 million to help train more than 5,000 additional mental health professionals, including counselors, social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals. Support would come in the form of stipends and tuition reimbursement.
- Grants of $25 million to support innovative state-based strategies to help young people ages 16-25 with mental health or substance abuse issues, and a $25 million program to help schools provide mental health services for trauma or anxiety, conflict resolution and other school-based violence prevention strategies.
- Launching a national conversation, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to increase understanding of mental health and to combat stigma surrounding treatment.
Most of these items require congressional approval, and members of Congress have already started holding hearings related to mental health policy. The Senate subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing Jan. 24 on the state of the U.S. mental health system. (Tellingly, it was the first such hearing held by the committee in seven years.) That same week, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), vice chair of the House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, co-hosted a briefing and panel discussion focused on mental health access and violence prevention. She was joined by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Ron Barber (D-Ariz.).
The American Counseling Association strongly supports investing in our nation’s schools and its mental health delivery system. We have begun meeting with members of Congress and administration staff regarding these and other proposals. Several members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, including Napolitano, Franken and freshmen members, are developing legislation in this area. As President Obama’s proposal states, it should be as easy to obtain mental health treatment as it is to obtain a gun.
ACA members invited to take part in advocacy webinar
On Feb. 26, ACA, in partnership with the Congressional Management Foundation, will host a webinar for all ACA members interested in participating in grass-roots efforts. The webinar will focus on citizen advocacy on Capitol Hill and discuss the way congressional offices use various forms of communication to understand the opinions of their constituency. The webinar will also offer tips for influencing senators and representatives.
If you are interested in participating in the webinar or have questions, contact Art Terrazas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.347.6647. We will post more information on the public policy section of the ACA website before the event.