Kids’ mental health getting a boost in Connecticut

By Eileen Weber
October 1st, 2023
Representative Liz Linehan (D-103th District), a member of the Committee on Children who worked closely on the legislation.

Bill focuses on access, play issues

Connecticut’s recently passed Senate Bill 2 focuses on providing more access to mental health services for children, additional protections for public libraries particularly regarding book bans, and requiring schools to have more play-based curriculum for preschool and kindergarten with an allowance for it during instructional class time for grades one to five.

The bill also creates the Office of Behavioral Health Advocate for state residents to better access mental healthcare. Governor Ned Lamont signed the bill into law in June and it will go into effect this October.

Introduced by the Committee on Children, the bill’s intent is to improve access to mental, physical, and emotional health services directed toward children and increase the number of social workers, lower licensure costs, and provide Spanish-speaking providers.

“Packaging into one bill is often easier procedure-wise and all these components were germane to the overarching issue of children’s mental wellness.” --Rep. Liz Linehan (D-103th District)

While there is a lot to unpack in this bill, Representative Liz Linehan (D-103th District), a member of the committee who worked closely on the legislation, said there was good reason to include all these topics.

“Packaging into one bill is often easier procedure-wise, and all these components were germane to the overarching issue of children’s mental wellness,” she explained. “The larger package, along with it being a Senate priority bill, underscored the importance of the issue.”

Connecticut passed this law with unanimous support from both the House and Senate, but it was not without its criticism.

Linda Mayes, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, gave testimony calling for an expansion of support for existing outpatient services, an increase in efforts surrounding prevention, and better reimbursement for behavioral healthcare services to bolster workforce development.

“We strongly support prevention and have spoken at length about the need to consider a continuum of care from prevention to intensive intervention. However, addressing only one piece of the continuum will not meet the current complex needs of many children,” Mayes relayed, in part, to the Committee on Children.

“Children suffering from high acuity needs require intensive in-community or outpatient services. These services are now overburdened and hard to access. This unrelenting surge in children’s mental health has revealed weaknesses across the continuum, in the availability of services and in the need for more clinicians, a larger workforce.”

Committee member Senator Ceci Maher (D-District 26) said children were particularly hit hard during the pandemic so getting this bill passed was imperative. Part of what spurred the need to pass it had to do with last year’s legislation not coming to fruition.

Committee member Senator Ceci Maher (D-District 26)

“Last year, [House Bill] 5001 set up a behavioral health component that looked at provisions across the state. Fast forward, that committee did not get set up,” she explained. “So, this is about taking a look at how service is provided across the state and how can we make it more seamless for kids and their families. And setting up the Office of the Behavioral Health Advocate is just an extension of that. We’re trying to build success in healthcare.”

Regarding the bill’s other components, Linehan sees libraries caught in a crossfire of culture wars, which fuels the need to protect them. She wants funding protected for the educational and emotional growth of children.

Maher pointed out that putting protections in place means that libraries will know how to respond should a book be challenged.

Both Linehan and Maher discussed the mental health benefits of play-based curriculum.

Maher noted that kids today have a lot of pressure to get top grades, but both academics and play have their place. By putting play as one aspect of a child’s education, she said, it allows children to have more freedom to learn and explore their world.

Linehan said there are significant studies highlighting the benefits of play-based education as a learning tool. She said play in general during the early grades “contributes to the development of a strong vestibular system, which has been shown to lessen ADHD, and the ensuing need for medication. But even if we take out all the scientific mumbo jumbo, kids who play are happier kids. Period.”

Linehan added the Committee on Children has worked over the years on legislation to mandate mental health screenings for children who visit the emergency room as well as provide funding for basic level training for first responders and educators to screen for children’s suicidal ideation.

Because the committee is spearheading more streamlined mental health access for children and their families, Linehan sees it as a continuation of what they have started. “I expect to work in children’s mental health in some capacity for the foreseeable future,” she said.

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