We must support children’s behavioral health

For the Monitor
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

As reported in the Monitor last month, in 2016, the New Hampshire Legislature took a major step forward by directing our state to develop a comprehensive, coordinated system of behavioral health care for children.

In 2017, the Legislature continued progress toward a system of care through the expansion of the Medicaid to Schools program and of the availability and funding of services to children with behavioral health needs. The New Hampshire State Senate is now faced with the choice of whether to continue supporting this system for our most vulnerable Granite Staters.

Earlier this week, the Senate Education Committee, in a 3-2 vote, voted to strike down SB 431, a critical bill which allows schools and organizations to collect the data necessary to comply with federal prevention grants, including those utilized for the system of behavioral health care for children. If the full Senate adopts this committee recommendation, New Hampshire’s entire children’s behavioral health system of care will risk losing more than $30 million dollars in federal funds.

Children with complex mental health and substance use disorders are some of our most at-risk Granite Staters and need the support that only a coordinated and comprehensive system of care can offer. This means that students must be offered the supports they need to be available to learn, both physically and emotionally, and their providers must coordinate and share critical information to provide a high level of care.

Our schools are an integral part of the system of care. Often, schools are on the front line working with children with complex behavioral health needs, and in some cases are the only places these students can access services. Schools must be able to collect crucial data to adequately assess the impacts of their work and maintain grant funding to continue life-saving initiatives.

Granite State schools are currently running several federally funded, targeted initiatives which support our most vulnerable New Hampshire students with behavioral health needs, including Safe Schools/Healthy Students, Project AWARE, and NH Families and Systems Together (FAST), Forward for Children and Youth 2020. The FAST Forward program supports the expansion and sustainability of a state level system of care for children, youth, and their families by providing individualized wraparound planning and an expanded array of services to the highest need children and youth with mental health challenges. More information on each of these school-based behavioral health services can be found on the New Hampshire Department of Education, Office of Student Wellness website. Project AWARE, as an example, seeks to substantially improve the engagement of school, families and youth in decision-making at the policy, practice and individual levels. In the school districts where it’s been implemented, it led to saving more than 215 hours of learning for children with mental health needs in New Hampshire schools in the 2016-17 school year. It is saving learning time by providing support to at-risk students and ensuring they are staying in class, rather than being sent to the office for discipline, which accounts for students missing 20 minutes of class time a day on average. That time adds up, and less learning time leads to our children being unprepared to become contributing members of society.

The grants to continue this program, and other effective initiatives for New Hampshire’s young people, are completely at risk unless we give our schools the necessary access to collect data and report on their outcomes. The law, as it exists, hampers local school district’s ability to demonstrate they have met certain outcomes mandated by federal funders. Without this ability, we are not only putting our kids at further risk, but are also leaving federal funding on the table.

It’s critical for the future of New Hampshire that we are supporting the health and wellness of our next generation. Our state is grappling with several crises related to the health and well-being of our children, including drug and alcohol use and mental illness. It would be irresponsible to put vital student wellness funding at risk when it is needed more than ever.

(Becky Whitley is a policy coordinator for the Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative.)