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Connecticut Democrats introduce legislation to prioritize the mental health of students

school classroom
Steven Brewer

Connecticut Democrats unveiled their “Healthy Students, Healthy Schools” initiative on Tuesday. They introduced two bills that make investments in student mental health programs and increase health services in schools across the state, many of which have been stressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Senate President Martin Looney said families have told him their stories of the mental and emotional stress the pandemic placed on their children.

“We owe it to the next generation of Connecticut to make sure that we respond to that by providing essential services for mental health and especially young people, and ensure that sufficient resources in schools as well so we are committed to meeting these needs,” Looney said.

The legislation calls for an unspecified increase in funding to support and grow the number of social workers in schools. According to a late 2021 advisory on youth mental health by the U.S. Surgeon General, more than one in three high school students between 2009 and 2019 reported persistent feelings of sadness.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Social Workers said that under one in five of the 12.5 million children with mental health issues receive the support and services they need. Suicidal behaviors among high school students have also increased even before the COVID-19 pandemic, as well.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said the pandemic exacerbated the challenges already existing for young people. He said the state is “rich with mental health resources,” but access to these resources is difficult to navigate.

“I think we have a golden opportunity to try and bring that system together to try and meld it in a way that works for parents and for students and for our schools communities and make a real difference especially now that we know more and more kids need services,” Duff said.

The initiative also focuses on making sure school nurses and teachers are trained to use the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan and requires that it be supplied to schools. This comes in response to the death of a Hartford student due to an overdose from fentanyl.

“This legislative session, we will make bold investments in student mental and social-emotional health, while working to ensure that youth are able to access the support and resources they need,” said Senator Doug McCrory, chair of the state’s education committee.

The legislation also:

  • Increases access to virtual mental health services
  • Provides mental health training for youth sports coaches, and mental health resources to athletes
  • Shifts school start times for better student health outcomes
  • Requires more transparency from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference
  • Increases the recruitment of teachers of color
  • Cuts costs for towns that fund special education
  • Increases and expands school-based health centers
  • Extends access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool, while also ensuring that the staff of those programs are paid competitively
  • Provides free universal pre-kindergarten at age 3
  • Increases access to mentoring and after-school programs
  • Provides more supports for children and adolescents disconnected from school
Clare is a former news fellow with WSHU Public Radio.