HARTFORD — Amid growing investments in children’s mental health and the approaching deadline for the state to spend its federal coronavirus money, lawmakers announced Monday the formation of a committee to determine which efforts are working and what’s still missing.
The Transforming Children’s Behavioral Health Policy and Oversight Committee arose out of legislation passed in 2021 calling for a sweeping overhaul in children’s mental health services.
Three bills addressing the topic were combined into “An Act Concerning Children’s Mental Health.” The final draft included waiving certain licensure requirements for behavioral health professionals; establishing a pilot program in Waterbury for outpatient services for young people; a grant program for schools to hire social workers, counselors and psychologists; developing a peer-to-peer mental health support program for teenagers; and funding to respond to calls to the 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
State Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, referenced the large number of children who have ended up in emergency departments because there was no other place for them to obtain treatment.
“I’ve talked to the parents who said to me, ‘I’m looking for a provider. They’re saying six months. I don’t even have six days. My child is in crisis,’” Exum said. “I know what it is to have to take your child out of the state of Connecticut because the services they need are just not available in the state.”
Substance abuse in young people is also part of the committee’s focus. Exum told CT Examiner she had spoken with parents who were seeking help for children addicted to vaping.
A statewide mental health survey completed in 2021 found about a third of all high schoolers — and nearly half of high school girls — in Connecticut reported feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks. But the same survey found only 22 percent of high school students said they were always able to get the help they needed.
The committee’s charge says it will look at problems like gaps in services, data collection, school-based health services and reimbursement from insurers.
The committee must also determine which of the interventions piloted in the 2021 mental health legislation are worth continuing after the federal coronavirus funds expire in early 2025. The state will have to put aside money in the budget to fund any continuing services.
“When we put [this legislation] together, we said specifically [that] we’re not just going to throw money at this,” State Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said. “We are going to make sure every dollar that is committed to this is doing exactly what we need it to do. And if we’re wrong and we picked the wrong thing, we’re not going to fund it anymore.”
Nuccio also noted the shortage of mental health providers in the state.
“We need to find a way to get these professionals to come and move to Connecticut and be part of these networks and be part of these teams, and get more kids graduating out with behavioral health professions so we can amp up and have the resources that we need,” she said.
Department of Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the state had entered into reciprocal agreements to make it easier for medical professionals licensed in nearby states to work in Connecticut. She also said the state allowed hospitals to repurpose beds as children’s psychiatric beds.
But Nuccio said the compacts hadn’t increased the number of physicians present in the state, although it made more treatment possible through telehealth.
“That’s an area of concern, because we have a shortage,” she said. “Connecticut actually rates pretty high compared to other states for the number of providers they have for behavioral health. But as we’re seeing, the demand is significantly higher than the supply.”
Vanessa Dorantes, commissioner for the Department of Children and Families, referenced several mental health interventions that have been or are in the process of being implemented, including urgent crisis centers — an alternative to emergency departments for children with immediate needs — opening in Waterbury, New London, Hartford and New Haven.
Jeff Vanderploeg, CEO of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, told CT Examiner he believes the state needs to put more effort into early intervention services, so children with mental health needs are able to get treatment as soon as they start to experience symptoms. He advocated for an expansion of mobile crisis centers, mental health supports based at schools and outpatient services.
“Anything that puts mental health supports in the … hands of children and families at the earliest point possible is going to be helpful,” he said.
Vanderploeg noted that children – some as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old – were presenting with mental and behavioral health symptoms earlier in life. The focus for those children, he said, needs to be more on family therapy, including certain parent-child interventions.
The need among adolescents is also growing, Vanderploeg said.
“Thirteen- to 16-year-old young people, particularly children of color — we’ve seen some of the highest rates of growth in mental health need and suicidality among those groups,” he said.
The committee is chaired by Exum, State Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, and Claudio Gualtieri, senior policy advisor with the state Office of Policy and Management. It will work alongside the Tow Youth Justice Institute of New Haven, as well as UConn’s Innovation Institute. The goal is to produce an annual “work plan” with specific recommendations.
Vanderploeg said he’s hopeful that, with the formation of the committee, there will be additional focus on the nuances of the mental health system, and a greater emphasis on coordinating the different efforts taking place.
“The reality is that for many, many kids, the emergency department is not the appropriate place for them to be,” he said. “And what we need instead are home, school and community-based alternatives that make sense for children in crisis, that can address that need.”