Youth Mental Health: State Legislators Respond

By Sylvia Steinert, LCSW

[Photo image credit: Angela Liptack]

“My child is having a hard time and you’re the sixth person to tell me you’re not accepting new clients.”

Mental health workers rejoiced three years ago when Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation that made the emotional wellbeing of Connecticut residents equal to the medical needs of their bodies. The “Mental Health Parity Act” prohibits insurance companies from excessive and intrusive restrictions on access to psychiatric and substance abuse treatment. Governor Lamont hoped that, in a state historically plagued by inequity of access, the law would ease barriers to mental health services and diminish the stigma consumers face in seeking that care.

Unfortunately, the law could do nothing to bring back psychologists who had already stopped accepting insurance after years of having their expertise challenged and their care restricted by the very insurance companies who market “their doctors” to consumers. The dearth of mental health providers and services is chronic and well documented. The shortage exacerbates the already daunting barriers facing those who need help but cannot afford out-of-pocket treatment from providers who no longer accept insurance. All this was true before the pandemic made things worse.

Within a few weeks, it is likely that one million Americans will have died of COVID-19. Privileged as we are to live in the richest country in the world, the United States has suffered disproportionately, ranking number one among developed nations in rates of COVID-19 infection and death. Many aspects of our lives have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, including what cannot be seen or readily measured—our inner lives. The pandemic exposed the tragic consequences of pitting public health against private rights, including in the area of mental health, as more people died amid skyrocketing rates of depression, substance abuse, trauma-related disorders, and self-destructive behaviors.

Nowhere is this issue more painful and tragic than among our youngest citizens. Last Fall, a coalition of the nation’s leading experts in pediatric health declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Fortunately, helpful legislation is in the works and promises relief. Led mostly by Democrats, including our own State Rep. Aimee Berger Girvalo and State Senator Will Haskell, who both serve on the Public Health Committee, these efforts require your support and attention.

At the start of the legislative session, Senate Democrats announced the “Healthy Students, Healthy Schools” Initiative, aimed at expanding and supporting children’s mental health. Two proposed bills seek to expand services and training to school staff, and to augment preschool education and child care. A bipartisan House effort, HB 5001, provides for the expansion of the mental health workforce, funding to towns to hire counselors in schools, and the expansion of telehealth services.

As always, you, the voter, have a role to play in helping proposed legislation become law, with funding to support its efficacy. State legislators pay attention to the numbers and content of constituent phone calls and emails they receive, so reach out to them now. Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, Rep. Ken Gucker, and Senator Will Haskell can use your input to convince their colleagues to act before the end of the session on May 4. Likewise, your friends will read this article (and perhaps also take action) if you forward them the link to it. Finally, consider writing a letter to the editor to make your neighbors here in Ridgefield and around the state aware of the urgency of the problem and encourage them to convey their support for Hartford’s effort to respond.

Sylvia Steinert is a member of the Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee, serving as Secretary.