CHEYENNE — Lawmakers hope to address the lack of mental health resources for students in the next general session.
Members of the Joint Committee on Education voted 8-6 on Tuesday to sponsor a bill that would allocate more than $11.5 million in additional funding to K-12 school districts for the next two years. Administrators could apply for a competitive grant of up to $120,000 that would go toward mental health services and help the state collect data on student needs.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, introduced the bill to the committee because he said school districts are consolidating mental health programs and need more support.
He said he has witnessed difficulties in small districts, especially because even though they have a smaller population, there are no resources available to them.
He based the $11.5 million allocation on the cost of the state’s 48 districts covering the salary of a mental health professional at $120,000 for two years.
This was agreed by school finance consultants for the state.
“It is unfortunate that we are now in a society where mental health services are so needed for children,” Sommers said. “But we are here, and we have been there. I’m just trying to look for solutions.
Wyoming ranks worst in the nation for suicide, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US average is 14.5 suicides per 100,000, and Wyoming is nearly double that at 29.8. This trend remains the same for young adults in the state.
The average suicide rate for residents ages 15 to 24 is 28.2 suicides per 100,000, while the US average is 13.9.
Averages increase with demographic age, and the rate for residents aged 25 to 34 is 31.4 per 100,000, 13.9 higher than the national average of 17.5.
While lawmakers agreed that extra support was needed in schools, some were wary of extra credit.
There were discussions about how to fairly distribute grants, whether impact could be measured, and whether more advisory staff or innovative programs would solve the problem at hand.
Others have argued that the Legislative Assembly did not pass recommendations for recalibration in 2020, such as increasing the number of employees in school districts for mental health and well-being.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said lawmakers couldn’t go back in time and adopt the recommendations, or update the funding model immediately from 2011, but they could implement the grants. meanwhile.
“It’s not a perfect law. We all have concerns about the way it is structured, but we lack mental health and well-being,” he said. “We know that we don’t provide enough resources, we don’t have enough staff, and we don’t meet the needs of our students and education employees across the state.”
Educators, administrators and trustees across the state have advocated for the bill.
“We don’t have a dedicated mental health professional on staff,” said Sheridan County School District 3 Superintendent Chase Christensen. “We don’t have an ORS (school resource) on staff. We do not have a school nurse on staff. We do not have a school psychologist on staff. We do not have a school social worker on staff.
Christensen said to hire teachers, the district needs to hire at a higher salary than the model provided. This funding has taken other resources in the school district, and it’s a common struggle for smaller districts.
Other schools across the state that provide mental health services or have been able to fund a counselor have their own struggles.
A guidance counselor at Dubois, Mike Marcus, said his school’s mental health specialist has already seen more than 20 clients in the two and a half months since she was hired.
“The average session in Wyoming is around $125 to $145 an hour, so it’s quite expensive,” he said. “A lot of our students and families can’t handle this, and we’re kind of filling the void.”
Another social worker at Pinedale Elementary School said she serves 50 students a week and is the only one providing them.
Jenny Arne said there was a huge need for mental health services after the pandemic, and a similar trend was seen in high school. She said she served students with an anxiety that caused them to refuse even to walk through the school gates or into the classrooms.
“There are a lot of adults in our communities who struggle with addictions, and so it directly affects children,” she said. “I’ve worked with a lot of kids who live in really dysfunctional home environments.”
Hannah McKinney is a guidance counselor at Pinedale High School and she is also the only faculty member with mental health qualifications. There is no consistent social worker, psychologist or school resource worker, and often there is no community mental health provider to refer students outside of school.
She said she was hired for administrative work and managing ACT tests, transcripts and graduation requirements, but was “putting out fires daily, instead of preventing them.”
McKinney has completed 18 suicide risk assessments so far this year.
“I find myself struggling every day with what’s most important: is it a student in crisis due to mental health issues, or is it someone who needs to get on the path to graduating from high school. High School and Succeed in University? she says.
Although the bill was sponsored by the committee, there was debate over whether it was the best solution for educators and students.
“Now we are looking at health care in the education committee. And I think we have the two largest line items in the state budget, which are the Department of Health and K-12,” said Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester. “Now you are competing for mental health budgets. Everybody wants to do mental health, everybody wants to give money to mental health.
He said he wanted the Department of Health to use the funding it received for mental health services to work with schools. He said it was their “bailliage” and that they should provide support on a contractual basis, and that it was not the right approach to provide the $11.5 million appropriations.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, voted against the legislation but said she wanted a more personalized approach to the problem and better identified measures of success.
She said there would be continual requests for funding in the future, and they would be placed in the K-12 block grant with little understanding of how they were spent.
Ellis said she also wanted to see creative approaches besides hiring another counselor, like a bill recommended by two sophomores at Burns High School. She said their school had been heavily impacted by suicide and students wanted mental and behavioral health days to be counted as excused absences.
Another solution suggested by a senator who voted against the sponsorship was to bring the faith community into the schools.
Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, said there were residents who wanted to help out for free and pray for the students, encourage them and tell them they are irreplaceable. He said part of the mental health conversation is about people who are “hopeless and suffering from anxiety”.
He said earlier in the talks that he couldn’t support ownership because districts had enough to allocate for mental health needs, and it would be there “if it was managed better.”
“Spiritually, these children need help, and these people need help,” he said.
Other lawmakers said it was important to consider a multitude of responses, but needed to act now.
Sommers said members of the faith community, prevention specialists and school districts are already working together and investing money in mental health, but it’s not enough. He said the teachers are overworked.
“Go spend a day or a week with your guidance counselor and walk around the school all day. It’s a different matter than when we all went to school,” Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said before voting yes. “Most of the kids are fine, don’t get me wrong… but there are some really tough cases. And we must be able to help these children. Because if the schools aren’t, who else is going to? »
This story was published on November 16, 2022.