New School Behavioral Health Recommendations Prioritize Emotional and Behavioral Health in Harris County Schools

HOUSTON, TX (2/14/13)--Most people are unaware that about half of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14, making mental illnesses ‘the chronic disorders of the young’. This fact, combined with the occurrence of recent tragedies involving children and mental health in our nation, has prompted a renewed and more serious interest in meeting the behavioral health—mental health and substance abuse—needs of Harris County children and youth.

In a press conference today, Mental Health America of Greater Houston and its Harris County School Behavioral Health Initiative will release policy recommendations that focus on supporting and helping Harris County school districts prioritize the emotional and behavioral health needs of all students.

“The behavioral health needs of young people have been overlooked by our society for long enough,” said Susan Fordice, President and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston. “A significant portion of a child’s time is spent at school, and this is where young people most often grapple with emotional and behavioral health problems. Schools must have the programs and policies they need to support the behavioral health and wellness of every child who walks through their doors.”

Current estimates indicate that Harris County is currently home to approximately 525,761 children ages 9-17. About 105,152, of these children have a mental illness or addictive disorder; and at least 5%, or 26,288, have a Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED).

According to Fordice, youths with behavioral health issues are at risk of experiencing challenges such as academic underachievement, criminal justice involvement and even suicide. In a report by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine it is suggested that “more than one-quarter of the total costs for mental health treatment services among adolescents were incurred in the education and juvenile justice systems.”

Many schools have struggled to meet the behavioral health needs of their students for a number of reasons.  A survey of seven school-based mental health care sites in Texas found that counselors face difficulties in providing appropriate levels of mental health services to students; teachers lack experience in recognizing early signs of mental health issues and oftentimes cannot identify available services in the community; and financial constraints keep many schools from adequately meeting the needs of students with mental health problems who are not eligible for services under federal law. A report by the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership noted that schools also face “immense pressure to focus on external accountability and test scores.”

“Even though schools are primarily concerned with education, many understand that behavioral
health is essential to a child’s learning as well as to their social and emotional development,” said Andrea Hinckson Usanga, Director of Policy and Government Relations at Mental Health America of Greater Houston. “Healthy students are better prepared to learn and succeed and schools must be partners in the behavioral health care of youth.

Usanga says these recommendations represent “a major culture shift in how students’ behavioral and emotional health issues are viewed and highlight the benefits that prevention, early detection, and treatment can have on the future wellbeing of young people and communities.”

The recommendations focus on legislation and policies that can broadly benefit the behavioral health of children and youth. A few primary recommendations for the Texas Legislature are to:

  • Restore the $5.4 billion in education funding cuts made during the 82nd Legislature; and
  • Restore the almost $13 million in funding cuts made to Communities in Schools during the 82nd Legislature.

While some recommendations for school districts are to:

  • Require teachers, nurses, counselors, principals and all other appropriate personnel to receive culturally competent training in how to recognize and appropriately respond to signs of behavioral health issues in students;
  • Offer opportunities for parents and students to receive education about signs of behavioral health issues in students, as well as parent support groups;
  • Implement best practice-based culturally competent mental health and substance abuse interventions;
  • Implement a best practice-based, culturally competent universal prevention program in each school;
  • Ensure at least one licensed behavioral health professional at each school;
  • Ensure at least one nurse at each school;
  • Implement strategies to improve school disciplinary policies, including
    • Reviewing and revising student codes of conduct to minimize discretionary removals, as well as time spent in out-of-school placements
    • Reviewing data on disciplinary placements among campuses and helping campuses with high numbers of placements to develop and implement alternative strategies, including progressive sanctions
  • Collaborate with out-of-school district placement entities to provide transitional service plans for returning students;
  • Develop strategies to enroll more students in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and
  • Partner with community agencies to provide behavioral health services using tele-health technology.

“We know that a focus on students and schools promises to have a long-term payoff by improving the academic and behavioral outcomes of young people,” said Usanga.

HARRIS COUNTY SCHOOL BEHAVIORAL HEALTH INITIATIVE
RECOMMENDATIONS REPORT

View or download the report online at http://www.mhahouston.org/files/290/. For more information about the Harris County School Behavioral Health Initiative at Mental Health America of Greater Houston contact Andrea Usanga at ausanga@mhahouston.org.

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