NEW CASTLE — Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, Delaware education leaders, mental health advocates and other lawmakers are leading the charge to increase behavioral health services in schools.
At a roundtable discussion hosted by William Penn High School on Tuesday, members from the Department of Education outlined how funds from the American Rescue Plan will be utilized to support social emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support and increase access to behavioral health services for all students.
“Too many children suffer in silence due to the stinging stigma our culture has placed on mental health,” Lt. Gov. Hall-Long said. “As a result, kids and families do not get the help that they need. For their future and for their well-being, we can no longer afford to fail to provide support and resources for kids who are battling mental illness. Our schools and communities can be a safe haven and conduit for help, and I am committed that we as a state provide the resources to achieve this goal.”
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum, and his wife Amy Kennedy, education director of The Kennedy Forum, were also in attendance at the roundtable. Mr. Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in Congress, was the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Mr. Kennedy said the discussion surrounding mental health has taken so long to come to the forefront because of inaction by many lawmakers.
“I guarantee 90% of my colleagues do not appreciate this whole discussion,” Mr. Kennedy said. “How significant social and emotional learning is to learning and that you can’t have numeracy and literacy if you don’t first have kids who are able to absorb that information.”
The roundtable focused on the concept of social emotional learning which The Kennedy Forum described as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Numerous Delaware lawmakers were in attendance on Tuesday, including Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark; Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle; Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington North; Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-Hawk’s Nest; Rep. Kendra Johnson, D-Bear/Newark; and Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-Pennwood. All co-sponsored the recent House Bill 100 which puts mental health professionals in elementary schools over the next few years.
“There is a lot of money that flows through our health care systems and so we cannot be neglectful when we talk about mental health,” Sen. Poore said. “The pandemic was an excuse for us to now have this conversation. This has always been a part of our lives, it’s about whether or not we addressed it. We now have that opportunity.”
“Our goal is to make sure every child in the state has an equal opportunity to look at trauma prevention and to have those mental health resources,” said Lt. Gov. Hall-Long.
The Colonial, Capital and Indian River school districts have all created new courses which integrate social emotional learning in recent years. Representatives from each district participated in Tuesday’s discussion, including Dr. Jon Cooper, the director of Health and Wellness in Colonial School District.
The district recently changed the name of that department from Behavioral Health to Health and Wellness on Monday.
“It’s a description of what we do but it’s also meant to be our aspirations,” Dr. Cooper said. “It sets a standard for us — what do we want our kids to experience in school? We want our students and our staff to have that feeling of wellness. Not the kind of wellness where you’re just walking around smiling all the time, but the kind of wellness where you feel like you belong, you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”
Lt. Gov. Hall-Long encouraged any family who thinks their child is suffering from mental health problems to reach out for help.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” she said. “If you have a child that is suffering, call our hope line 1 (833) 9-HOPEDE or dial 211. Recognize that in our schools, our legislators, our governor, our behavioral health consortium have really put a road-map in place where children should be able to access resources, through a wellness center or a school nurse, and we have tried to up the access in the community. The families should know they don’t have to suffer alone and they don’t have to have insurance.”