State panel urges 23 measures to help kids’ mental health - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

State panel urges 23 measures to help kids’ mental health

December 20th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
State panel urges 23 measures to help kids’ mental health

By Paul Maryniak
Executive Editor

Stating that “in Arizona, suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 10-14 and ages 15-25,” a special Arizona House task force has signed off on 23 recommendations to address the problem.

But Rep. Travis Gratham, R-Gilbert, co- chair of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Teen MentalHealth, told panel members those recommendations may not be adopted in the coming legislative session as quickly as they hope.

Telling the panel their work over the last three months ‘is not for nothing,” Grantham said:

“Everybody now is going to have to be patient and be happy with any victories we get out of these recommendations. I’m going to just tell you we’re a divided chamber here and across the yard. We have a new governor.

“There’s going to be a period of time and as we come down here in January and February, where we have to get our feet under ourselves and figure out what’s possible. And the lobbyists will come out, the special interest will come out, the representatives who have disagreements or agreements will come out and that’s my business. That’s what I volunteered for.

“And I’ll do my best to put as much of this forward as I can with other members’ help because I can’t do it all by myself. And I just want you all to know that your work here matters and even something in here is the most important thing to you or this group doesn’t happen this year, it might very well happen next.

“These things take time,” he said, telling paneling members to “be patient, pray, watch, encourage” and speak on behalf of whatever measures do come before lawmakers.

The recommendations represent the culmination of hours of hearings by the panel, which comprised educators, a variety of medical and behavioral experts, social workers and others.

Other East Valley residents on the panel included Chandler educator Katie McPherson, a vocal advocate of improved mental health services; former Kyrene Governing Board president Bernadette Coggins; and Mesa Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Sally Harrison, whose 17-year-old son died by suicide.

Since September, the panel heard from a wide range of experts as well as from teenagers who either attempted suicide or know teens who completed it as well as from parents who lost or nearly lost children to suicide or other self-harm.

According to the 2022 report by the Arizona Child Fatality Review Team, 44 of the 863 deaths of people under 18 in Arizona in 2021 were suicides. It said warning signs existed in 68% of those suicides and the majority involved children 15 to 17 years old.

But various experts told the panel that suicides aside, more Arizona youngsters and teens face a variety of pressures – and substance abuse dangers – that have imperiled their mental and emotional well-being.

Pandemic-driven disruptions of their school life the last two years only intensified those pressures, according to a report issued in May by the U.S. Department of Education.

“Many children and students struggle with mental health challenges that impact their full access to and participation in learning, and these challenges are often misunderstood and can lead to behaviors that are inconsistent with school or program expectations,” it said.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic intensified these challenges, accelerating the need to provide school-based mental health support and leverage our accumulated knowledge about how to provide nurturing educational environments to meet the needs of our nation’s youth.”

The House panel was created by outgoing House Speaker Rusty Bowers of Mesa, who asked it to return in December with potential solutions and recommendations to public and private agencies that address teen mental health issues.

Some of its recommendations involve unspecified amounts of additional funding, for a state-run Teen Mental Health Grant Program that supported school districts and nonprofits “for mental health first aid training, youth resiliency training, substance misuse awareness training” for adults and kids.

It also asked the Legislature to work with the Attorney General’s office to ensure that the millions Arizona will be getting for settlements of opioid-related lawsuits “are utilized appropriately for these specified purposes.”

It also urged the creation of a “community hub of information and support” that would address access to care, depression and mental illness; bullying and social media; and family support and substance abuse.

Some experts who testified before the panel earlier had urged such a hub, but also warned “it is not an easy lift” because it required coordination among a number of websites and social media platforms.

Among other information, the hub would address “different types of bullying, cyberbullying, social media impact and bullying behaviors for parents and students as well as strategies for students to mitigate incidents and timely reporting to school officials.” It also would provide an array of other information related to prevention, treatment and support.

The panel also called for increased financial support for crisis and in-patient services for kids, higher reimbursement rates from insurance companies and the state Medicaid program for providers because of their specialized training and their need to have longer children’s appointments because parents have to be involved at some point.

It also called for more financial incentives that would encourage more college-bound students to consider careers in mental health programs serving children’s social and mental wellness.

It said school districts should obtain or create an app that assists in threat assessments and enables students to report safety issues or reach out for help on a 24/7 anonymous basis.

It also urged tax credit deductions for impatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment programs “to relieve financial burden for families: and state funding for districts to have at least one staff member who would “work with local coalitions and nonprofits to coordinate youth resiliency and primary prevention lessons and training.”

Co-chair and outgoing Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, conceded that the problem the committee had been tasked to address “isn’t a one-size fits-all situation.”

“This is an all-hands-on-deck,” Osborne said, and that finding solutions needs the involvement of parents, medical experts and educators, law enforcement and teens themselves. She pointed to the 400-page report the committee is issuing and ticked off a variety of actions that need to be taken not just on a governmental level but in homes and schools as well as by businesses.

“Those kids need to know you’re back there,” she said, adding:

“Those are the things that we need to be doing. There’s so many great people that are doing it but we need more of them to do it.”