Legislation's mental health provisions widely praised

People with mental illness, teachers and the larger community all will benefit from the mental health provisions of the gun control bill before the state legislature on Wednesday.

That was the assessment Wednesday of two local mental health advocates, a high school principal and a teacher representative to seven measures intended to improve identification and treatment of mental illness, as well as additional provisions that expand insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment.

"If this helps reduce the stigma and the barriers to treatment, and makes it easier for people to get help, it's a good thing," said Robert Davidson, executive director of the Norwich-based Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, an independent agency that evaluates mental health services. "The more services, the more options there are to get people into treatment, the better."

Three of the measures allow school boards to offer additional training to staff and direct the commissioner of education to consider whether the training should be added to teacher certification requirements.

Mental Health First Aid training is a 12-hour course, first developed in Australia, that is offered through the Washington, D.C.-based National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. It teaches how to identify and respond to mental health problems, as well as effective actions to help people in crisis get professional care.

"It's not diagnosis, treatment or therapy. It's recognizing behaviors that have the potential to get out of hand," Davidson said. Those who receive the training learn how to soothe a person in crisis and control a situation so that treatment can be provided, he said.

Teachers will welcome the training, said Eric Bailey, spokesman for AFT Connecticut, the union that represents about 12,000 educators statewide.

"It would give them the tools and the structure they need, and the training in what to look for," Bailey said. In addition, it would give teachers more confidence in raising concerns about a student's mental health to parents and school psychologists, he said.

The measures strengthening requirements for insurance coverage for mental health services are greatly needed, Waterford High School Principal Don Macrino said.

"Time and time again, I've seen the safety nets that should apply not there for people who recognize they need help," he said. "Either they have no idea how to get the help, or they can't access it."

Teachers at his school will report concerns about a student's mental health to school psychologists or social workers, Macrino said, but Mental Health First Aid training would enhance their ability to recognize problems.

David Burnett, who heads an outpatient mental health agency in Norwich, said that overall, he was pleased with the bill. He noted, however, that while it recognizes what he calls one of the main gaps in current mental health services, it does not take direct action. The bill commissions a task force to study how services are provided to 16- to 25-year-olds, as well as other aspects of the mental health system. The task force report is to be completed by February.

"The transition from child (Department of Children & Families) services to adult services has been horrible," said Burnett, the executive director of Reliance House. "Kids get lost and if their problems are picked up later, it's often by the police."

Some initial steps to address this age group have been taken, including the opening about four years ago of two Reliance House transitional facilities for a small number of young adults with mental illness. But much more is needed, Burnett said.

"People need support systems," he said.

Davidson said that while the measures represent positive improvements to mental health services, had they been in place earlier, they still may not have stopped 20-year-old Adam Lanza from carrying out the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Lanza "didn't have a major mental illness," but was "angry and alienated, and had lost all connection to the community," Davidson said.

Despite that, he said, the focus that the legislative response to the tragedy brought to mental health issues afforded advocates the chance to have many of their longstanding concerns addressed.

"We were represented, we were vocal, and we testified at every opportunity," he said. "We were heard."

j.benson@theday.com

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