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Texas lawmakers are prioritizing mental health for school safety. But advocates worry about stigma.

March 19, 2019, 12 AM
By Marissa Evans
The Texas Tribune

Mental health is at the forefront of gun violence prevention conversations among Texas legislators this session, but advocates for people with mental illness are wary of that focus.

After the Santa Fe High School shooting in May that left 10 dead and 13 others wounded, Gov. Greg Abbott held a series of roundtable discussions around school safety that resulted in proposals like more resources for school safety personnel and closing gaps around mental health access. He named school safety as one of his top 2019 session priorities.

The newfound push among state leaders and legislators around school safety and preventing mass shootings is reinvigorating ideas around mental health care for Texas children. But mental health advocates often cringe when legislators make the argument that mental health care can prevent mass shootings, saying the rhetoric stigmatizes people with mental illness as if they’re inherently violent. Increasing access to care is just one part of the solution, advocates say.

One of the high-profile mental health bills of the session is Senate Bill 10, filed by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Nelson told senators as she laid out her bill that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting. The legislation is deemed a priority by Abbott and cleared the Senate in a 31-0 vote March 5. It has been sent to the House for consideration.

The bill would create the Texas Mental Health Care Consortium, a $100 million initiative to bring universities and other health care providers together to connect children to mental health services. The bill also aims to promote use of telemedicine and mental health research and to expand the state’s mental health workforce.

“This bill is going to help young people get the care that they need, and it will ultimately save lives,” Nelson said.

She said she is troubled that “kids need to worry about there being a school shooting” and how students are dealing with issues around drug use and suicide. She said she worked with mental health experts, pediatricians and local judges to understand the scope of the problem before filing the bill and found that people often don’t know where to send kids who need help.

Nelson has faced criticism and questions about potential concerns over children’s data privacy, parental consent and pharmaceutical company involvement with universities. The bill has also been criticized because it does not provide mental health services — rather, it connects children and families to professionals they can see for help.

Josette Saxton, director of mental health policy for Texans Care for Children, said students are more likely to see youth violence on their campuses in the form of bullying, dating violence, physical fights, or self-inflicted harm like cutting or suicide rather than “the horrific but much more jarring and visible incidents like what happened in Santa Fe.”

“It’s a tricky area because the conversation and the attention about ensuring or addressing mental health concern especially in youth is something that is definitely needed,” Saxton said.

The state previously found it still needs to improve access to care for Texans, especially children, according to a final report released two years ago by the House Select Committee on Mental Health. Some of those challenges included identifying and treating mental health issues and families finding mental health professionals covered by insurance. Another challenge was that school districts were not using the Mental Health First Aid program, created to provide mental health training for public school personnel. The report found that schools were not using it because the state was not paying for travel and the course required a full day of staff time.

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