MONTPELIER — A special education expert advocates making mental health services available to all students.
The House Committee on Education heard testimony Wednesday from Erin Maguire, president of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, who said mental health services must become an entitlement for all children in need.
“There are no wait lists for kindergarten,” Maguire said. “There are no wait lists for when a child breaks an arm. There should not be wait lists for mental health services.”
The testimony came in response to a study — issued jointly by the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services — which looked at the delivery of school-based mental health and substance services.
Data from the study came from a survey sent to special education directors for all of the state’s districts and supervisory unions. With a response rate of 56 percent, the study shows 73 percent of schools have a behavior interventionist, a staff member who provides one-on-one or small-group support for students with an emotional disturbance. However, only 12 percent offer some sort of family therapy.
“If we don’t treat family structures as well treating the student, we don’t get positive outcomes,” said Maguire, whose council collected and analyzed the data.
Maguire’s recommendation went beyond the recommendations in the study, which calls for greater collaboration between the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services and stresses the need to reduce the boundaries created by confidentiality requirements. These requirements make teaming around an individual student a challenge, the study finds.
Since 1992, Vermont schools have offered mental health services through a program called Success Beyond Six, which allows schools to provide services through a local designated agency. Forty percent of those services are billed to Medicaid, with the remainder paid by the district or supervisory union.
According to the study, 65 percent of schools engage private therapists who come to the school and bill Medicaid or a private insurer. However, private insurance providers typically do not cover mental health services, said Charlie Biss, director of the Children, Adolescent and Family Unit for the Department of Mental Health.
Biss drew an analogy between mental health and substance abuse services, noting that all students should receive counseling to reduce substance abuse, but not every student needs substance abuse treatment.
“All kids need mental health services. They don’t all need mental health treatment,” Biss said.
Biss addressed how mental health among students is not tied to household poverty.
“Mental health is an equal-opportunity situation,” Biss said. “Mental illness and suicide cut across the financial spectrum.”
The study cites data from the 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Study, which shows 21 percent of high school students reported feeling sad for at least two weeks in a 12-month period. In addition, 11 percent of students made a plan to commit suicide, while 5 percent made an attempt.
Committee Chairwoman Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington, asked if there is an equity issue across the state, in terms of the mental health services offered by schools.
Laurel Omland, from the Department of Mental Health, acknowledged there is a disparity between services offered in Chittenden or Washington counties and those offered by smaller and more rural districts.
Just how many students need services — and how many need them and are not receiving them — is question that went unanswered by the study, which cites national data that shows one in five children and adolescents have one or more mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.
Deborah Quackenbush with the Agency of Education noted that the study was born out of survey data collected from special education directors. Just as not all special education students receive mental health services, she said, not all students who receive — or should receive — mental health services are in special education.
On the substance abuse side, the study showed that the Department of Health issues annual grants of up to $40,000 to 21 supervisory unions across the state to provide education and counseling.
According to the study, during the 2013-14 school year, the grants funded the screening of about 1,500 students for mental health or substance abuse.
Of those students, 345 received referrals for substance abuse services, while 551 were referred for mental health services. However, only 22 percent of students who received referrals reported actually connecting with the recommended service.
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