HARRISBURG, AP — Amid a growing population of young people struggling with mental health crises, plus another string of mass shootings across the country, Pennsylvania lawmakers are prioritizing mental health services in this year’s budget by approving a first line item of $100 million for academic support.
Citing the recent tragedies in Texas and Illinois, Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, said that through the funding, the state will attempt to link mental health and safety and security. “so there are no people falling through the cracks.”
Each school district in the state will receive $100,000 as a foundation grant and charter school entities will receive $70,000.
In addition, the State Safety Fund, which was established in 2018 to improve physical security for schools after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will also receive $100 million. The funds have always been used to improve security, including adding cameras, secure entrances and staff to school buildings.
For educators, addressing mental health is necessary to ensure children are in a good place to learn, said John Callahan, advocacy manager for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The state funding will help schools address mental health proactively and preventatively, as a way to engage students before it reaches crisis level.
Callahan said school districts have responded to mental health needs in a variety of ways, including increasing the number of school counselors and school psychologists, which can be costly with salary and benefits. Others rely on contracting out these services, including one district that uses a telephone service to provide student support.
Many school districts, he said, also work closely with their county behavioral health departments. But with pressure on staffing at the county level, wait times for services can stretch to as long as three weeks.
The Bucks County Mobile Crisis Unit, for example, was “emptied during the pandemic”, and operating at a significantly lower capacity, according to Donna Duffy-Bell, Bucks County Developmental and Behavioral Health Programs Administrator.
“I’m sure the schools, as well as the wider community, have felt the impact of this limited capacity,” she says.
Pennsylvania’s need for more mental health support has grown in recent years.
In 2021, youth helplines, mobile crisis response teams, and walk-in crisis centers across the state all saw an increase in the number of people seeking care by compared to the previous year, according to data from the Department of Social Services.
Additionally, 40% of Pennsylvania sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders surveyed in 2021 said they felt sad or depressed on most days in the past year – a slight increase from 38% of students surveyed in 2017 and 2019.
More children also seriously considered suicide or planned suicide in 2021 compared to the previous two survey years, and reported self-harm also increased. The data, collected every two years by state agencies from 1,908 eligible schools, reflects what officials say is a growing trend of rising mental health issues among Pennsylvania’s youth.