DOVER — A legislative effort to give Delaware students better access to mental health services is continuing this year, with a Senate committee advancing a bill that would provide learners in grades 6 through 8 with more counselors.
House Bill 300 passed the House of Representatives unanimously last week. With its passage in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, it is now set to be heard on the Senate floor — one step away from Gov. John Carney’s pen.
The bill continues the work that prime sponsor Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, began last year after she learned that Delaware had few counselors available to students even as they were dealing with the heightened stresses of the ongoing pandemic. Her first step to address the issue was with a different bill, HB 100, now signed into law, which increased the number of mental health professionals in elementary schools for students in kindergarten through grade 5.
This year’s bill is similar, tackling the rest of the middle school grades. It’s part of a strategy, Rep. Longhurst said in an interview, of addressing mental health early on. Doing so can help steer children away from encounters with the justice system as well as homelessness and addiction later on in life, she said.
“I believe … in going upstream, not downstream — meaning go to the root of the problem,” Rep. Longhurst said.
Provided it is funded, House Bill 300, much like its predecessor, would ramp up the number of school counselors in schools at a fixed rate over three years. In 2023, it would provide for up to one counselor for every 400 students, grades 6 to 8, per school district or charter school. By 2025, the ratio would be bumped to one counselor for every 250 students. School social workers could fill that role instead of counselors, per the bill.
The legislation also would provide for one school psychologist or licensed therapist with experience in schools or with school-age children for every 700 students.
The bill was backed at the committee hearing by groups representing state teachers and school administrators, as well as health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“This early intervention will help prevent the devastating consequences of unaddressed mental illness,” said Annie Slease, director of advocacy and education for the mental illness group. The bill would help educators, too. Teachers are the ones left, underequipped, to address their students’ mental health concerns when there aren’t enough mental health professionals, Ms. Slease said.
“HB 300 is critical for so many Delawareans. For young people, certainly, and first and foremost, but also for their families and for educators,” she said. “We simply can’t afford not to invest in this bill.”
Funding for the bill is one of two significant obstacles standing in the way of expanding more students’ access to mental health professionals. HB 300 will cost the state approximately $10.1 million in 2023 and $15.1 million in 2025, according to the bill’s fiscal note, as the number of counselors ramps up. Local schools will also have to pitch in money — about $7 million in 2025.
The plan is for the bill to draw a small portion of its funding from money that was intended to fund K-5 counselors under last year’s bill. So far, no money has been set aside in the budget specifically for HB 300.
That might take some time, said the committee chair, Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, “but it’s really important that we signal where we want to go.”
The other issue is the availability of enough qualified mental health professionals to fill the newly created positions should the bill pass, said Rep. Longhurst. But the roles need to come first, she said: “Unless you build it, they won’t come.”
Rep. Longhurst said she plans to keep on with her push to put more counselors and other mental health professionals in schools. She plans to address high school next.
“We just didn’t realize how important it was until the kids weren’t in school for two years. And now they’re coming back and they haven’t had (mental health) services,” Rep. Longhurst said. “So I’m trying to break the stigma.”