State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, returns remotely to Hartford for her fourth term representing a district that stretches from Marlborough to Ledyard. In a conversation with the Connecticut Examiner, Osten shares her legislative priorities for the upcoming session. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are your top legislative priorities for the upcoming session?
I’ve always been interested in mental health awareness and improvements in the system. I’ve been meeting with people about this throughout the pandemic and even before. The initiatives I’ll be focusing on during this session have been on the forefront of my agenda for years. It was a true failure when we closed psychiatric facilities due to the pandemic and did not fill the void that was created for residents. I’m not saying we should reopen everything, I’m saying we need to have a broad infrastructure of mental health support systems that take care of those in need, and most of my legislative priorities are under that umbrella, even if they are also about corrections, or labor, or education.
Tell me about your corrections bill.
I had the sentencing committee do an assessment of inmates in the correctional system who are chronically mentally ill, excluding those who report substance abuse with no other mental illnesses. It found that 81 percent of female inmates report being chronically mentally ill, along with 28 percent of male inmates, which is a number that I believe is low because it’s self-reporting. I think the true numbers are even higher.
One of my bills is asking for a reporting mechanism to correctly identify the mental health of inmate populations and assess how they serve their sentences. I believe mentally ill inmates do more of their time because halfway houses and group homes are less interested in taking someone out who requires mental health support. I want to have a report so we can see how many mentally ill inmates are serving all of their sentences compared to other inmates.
I believe that this population is more likely to serve their whole sentences, which means that when they’re discharged, there’s no requirement to set up services for them. It’s not like they go out to a group home or halfway house and then get to transition into the general population.
I am also asking for there to be an interface with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services from the point of incarceration to discharge, and that we identify the rate of recidivism among this population. I want us to move beyond just changing the geography of people with mental health or behavioral issues.
What are your legislative priorities around education?
I want to require exit interviews for all students who leave school without achieving a diploma. We need to identify if a child has had a history of trauma, and if that family has been reported to DCF for ongoing stressors or needs that are not being addressed. Is there in-school bullying that led to the withdrawal? Can the child be set up in an environment that will allow them to get independence?
Right now, I don’t believe there is any record of why any given child has left the school system. I want a report that would provide us with information so that we can make plans and provide resources for programs that will help children.
I also want to require a regional review of support services for families with mental or behavioral health challenges. If someone has a chronic mental health condition, and the family is identifying something as a problem, how do we help that family deal with the issue? Are we requiring local law enforcement to interface with the family, or are we just thinking it’s just going to go away and the child will grow out of it?
I think some might push back on the idea that law enforcement officers would be the best equipped to handle these types of situations.
I actually don’t think they’re the best equipped either, and think that seeing law enforcement as the only people who can respond to situations like this is the wrong way of going about it. But right now, when there is outreach to families struggling with mental health challenges, law enforcement is on the front lines of that. I don’t think we have enough psychiatrists or psychologists to handle this. We need to stop leaving families completely alone to deal with the infancy of mental illness.
In many cases, I think we could use licensed clinical social workers, but many of them are barred from doing this type of work, and certainly need more. I think we have to do something akin to what we did with the manufacturing pipeline to provide support for more people to enter this field.
Tell me about the labor bill you’re proposing.
Workers comp is not currently required to cover injuries in the workplace that don’t have a physical component. For example, and this actually happened, say you are working in a McDonald’s and someone comes in and starts shooting, your best friend is killed right in front of you while you’re on the job. If you end up with PTSD as a result of that incident, that does not qualify you for workers comp. It makes it very hard for you to pay for the mental health treatment. This has come up again and again after shootings in workplaces across the state. Many states cover workers comp for these types of mental health challenges, and across the country, these make up only about 2 percent of the cost of workers comp, and half of one percent of cases. It would not overwhelm the system. I believe in containing cost, but I also believe in covering people’s injuries whether they are mental or physical.
You gave a few examples of shootings in workplaces, but has pandemic-related workplace trauma made this issue more urgent for you?
I believe we are in a time of tremendous trauma for people, especially those working in medical professions, group homes, and nursing homes. I know there is trauma in this workforce. I liken it to what happened in Vietnam. The nurses in Vietnam, who were predominantly women back then, came home from Vietnam and felt that they did not deserve the same treatment as the men in the service. They said, it’s not the same thing, I wasn’t going into battle, but they still had trauma and there were a lot of substance abuse problems in that group after the war. A lot of women completely missed out on treatment. If we don’t recognize that we’re going to have to provide treatment for workers, we’re denying what is actually going on. I think this law needs to be looked at and brought back because we need to finally recognize that mental health is a component of health, and injury to the brain should be treated just like any other injury. If I broke my leg running to an incident in corrections I would be covered. Why not if I have to cut someone down who hung themselves and that gives me PTSD? It’s the same thing.
Leadership has signaled that there won’t be much time in this session to pass a large number of bills. Are you worried about getting all of these passed? Do you think you’ll have to prioritize, and if so, which bills currently have the most support?
I’m not worried about it. I’m going to put bills in, and hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to speak to leadership about them. But I look at the long game. If we don’t start the discussion we can’t get to the resolution. Putting in these bills, at a minimum, starts the discussion.
I think there is real support on the workers comp issue. We passed a similar bill covering PTSD for police officers, and I think that if we had stayed in session, we could have also covered correctional staff. This time, I think the better approach is not going job class by job class, but just covering this across the spectrum.
How do you think the session being remote will impact your work?
We’ve all become very adept at handling meetings via Zoom, so I think that things will be fine. I want to get back in person, but I think there are some benefits to a remote session, and that moving forward, there will always be an online component so more people can testify. Often, if you have a long day of testimony, people don’t stay because they have to get home and feed their families. When it’s a snowy day and people aren’t going to drive up, this will allow them to testify online from home.