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Texas better positioned to support children’s mental health

By Gary M. Blau, Ph.D., and Linda Rodriguez, Ed.D.

Of all the things the Coronavirus pandemic has cost us so far, certainty is chief among them. Indeed, most everything we used to take for granted is different, and the only consistency is inconsistency.

For all of us, these are unsettling and unprecedented times. For children, who thrive under the reassurance of a steady routine and social interaction, the unpredictability can be even more stressful.

Hope is also too often a scarce commodity in such times, but one hopeful aspect of the current situation it’s that this is happening during a time when Texas is more prepared than ever to support children’s mental health. Well in advance of this current crisis, Governor Greg Abbott, along with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound), made the mental health of our state’s children and families an emergency item during the last legislative session.

While the stresses and impacts caused by the Coronavirus pandemic have yet to be fully realized, the effects of disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the tragic events at Santa Fe High School helped spur us to action during last year’s legislative session. As a result, Texas is in a much better position to help our young people deal with this current crisis.

Most prominently, the legislature allocated nearly $100 million to establish the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which is fostering collaboration among our state’s medical schools with a focus on the well-being of Texas children, including two broad-based supports:

  • The Child Psychiatry Access Network (CPAN), which enables pediatricians and primary care providers to work with child psychiatry consultation hubs at leading medical schools to reach timely, accurate treatment decisions.
  • Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT), which – at the direction of parents – will provide schoolchildren with access to service providers via telemedicine and telehealth to help identify the mental health needs of students and provide assistance accessing services; and

Most critically, both programs are virtual and do not require face-to-face visits or travel. The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) and its Gulf Coast Regional Program, The Hackett Center for Mental Health, is now working with providers, advocates, and state leaders to be sure those programs continue to move forward, despite the pandemic. Further, the law that established the Consortium (Senate Bill 11, 86R) also created a School Safety Allotment to improve safety and security, including costs associated with: hiring mental health personnel and implementing prevention and treatment programs, including suicide prevention programs. The state budget designated an additional $100 million to fund the new allotment. Other legislation enhanced training requirements for school employees, curriculum requirements, education programs, and health care services to better support student mental health.

Both before and after the session, Texas educators were working hard to improve their systems and responses, and MMHPI has assembled a team of proven leaders in delivering emotional wellness supports in schools. For example, MMHPI and The Hackett Center for Mental Health, have been working with Education Service Region 4 (ESC-4), which includes both the Santa Fe ISD and over 1.2 million students, most of whom were impacted by Harvey – to develop a strategic framework for mental health in that region. This framework will help schools and districts ensure access to the full range of evidence-based emotional wellness for all students and mental health care for those students with greater needs.

In fact, a recent study released by Raise Your Hand Texas indicated that social and emotional wellness was the highest priority outcome related to school quality among Texas parents, with 81% of parents believing that it’s important that students graduate school with skills that are essential to mental wellness, such as self-management, interpersonal skills, and decision-making. Focusing on children and adolescents is important because half of all mental illnesses emerge by age 14, and 75% of these illnesses are identifiable by age 24. Put simply, mental illness is a pediatric illness.

Texas has come a long way in prioritizing children’s mental health and equipping our schools with resources to help students, and the investments made by our legislature more broadly over the past several years will pay dividends in responding to this crisis. We must also remember that the mental health impacts of a crisis can extend for months, even years.

As the current crisis continues to unfold, it is common to experience distress and uncertainty; especially about how to best help our children. You can find more information about children’s stress and mental health at https://www.texasstateofmind.org/covid-19/.

 Gary M. Blau, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health, a Regional Center of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.  Prior to this he was Chief of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  Follow him on Twitter @GaryBlauPhD

Linda Rodriquez, Ed.D., is the Senior Director for School Behavioral Health at the Hackett Center for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Prior to this she was the District Coordinator of Multi-Tiered System of Supports for the Pasadena Independent School District and a Principal for the Houston Independent School District.