Culpeper Star-Exponent: Federal measure would connect more youth to mental telehealth services

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION

Responding to a growing national crisis, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, introduced, “The Connecting Students with Mental Health Services Act” this week, to expand telehealth counseling for America’s youth.

Nearly two-thirds of high school students in Virginia reported feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge and 40% reported feeling sad or hopeless, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Yet more than half of surveyed school divisions were pessimistic about their ability to employ a suitable mental health workforce for the 2022–23 school year, the survey showed.

Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick is co-sponsor of the bill with Spanberger, which would create a federal grant program under the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services to help school districts fund telehealth programs for mental health services.

Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school system, recently initiated the program for its 61,000 students. They are partnering with Hazel Health on the free service, costing the school system $15 per student per year, more than $686,000 for the first nine months, according to WTOP.

Fairfax school board officials allocated $500,000 in the fiscal year 2023 budget for the service.

Federal funding through the “Connecting Students with Mental Health Services Act” would allow school districts to establish a private setting for students to connect with a professional, pay staff salaries and purchase or upgrade technology necessary to provide tele-mental health services.

The program would prioritize rural and low-income districts, where children and adolescents are less likely to have access to professional mental health services, according to the congresswoman’s release.

“As children and teenagers across our Commonwealth and our country report more frequent feelings of anxiety, sadness and hopelessness, we must continue to find ways to connect our future generation with professional mental health resources,” said Spanberger. “School districts are already working to fill the gap for their students, but many are stretched thin by finite resources.”

Implementation of tele-mental health programs in K-12 schools is a critical next step in increasing access during a time when pediatric mental health is at an all-time high, said Fitzpatrick in a statement, adding “That is why I am proud to co-lead this bipartisan legislation that will bolster access to comprehensive mental health services in our communities.”

King George County parent Miriam Niemi said it is vital to make it easier to access mental health care.

“I know families who could only access daytime appointments and had to withdraw students from school, travel home to get onto a zoom therapy call and then return their student to school,” she said in a statement. “I know of other families who cannot access mental health care due to distance and this bill would allow students to get this important service with minimal disruption to their school day.”

Jenna Alexander, President-Elect of Virginia PTA, noted that as a result of the pandemic, there’s been escalating mental health, behavioral health and substance abuse problems in the schools.

“Unfortunately, the number of school-based mental health providers isn’t enough to meet the demand and many students are on wait lists to access care,” she said. “Providing school-based tele-mental health services, particularly in mental healthcare deserts, will enable students to access preventative care without needing to travel long distances or miss instructional time.”

Many other national education associations are supporting the measure, including Virginia Education Association, Virginia Association of School Superintendents and the National Associations of Elementary and Secondary School Principals.

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