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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    With broad support, Connecticut House passes mental health bill for children

    Hartford — The state House of Representatives passed a bipartisan children’s mental health reform bill on Wednesday.

    The bill was passed unanimously, 149-0, with two House members absent or not voting. It now moves to the Senate.

    Both locally and statewide, legislators of both parties and chambers have highlighted children’s mental health as a priority for this legislative session. The bill passed Wednesday includes policies that Republicans and Democrats have championed since before the current session began, pointing to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as the chief reason for the bill.

    “While there were mental health issues prior to the pandemic, the issues have been exacerbated,” state Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, said while introducing the bill on the floor Wednesday afternoon.

    State senators and representatives from both parties, including Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, as well as Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont have said there needs to be legislation on mental health this session. Somers helped engineer a Republican proposal, some of which is in the bill passed Wednesday: House Bill 5001, An Act Concerning Children’s Mental Health.

    State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, said he "couldn't imagine being in high school today and dealing with a lot of the pressure some of these kids deal with, especially with social media."

    The bill is meant to “improve access to mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorders, particularly for children, and promote awareness about these insidious problems,” according to a joint favorable report on the bill. Some of the problems the bill is intended to address include the expansion of licensing for behavioral health professionals in order to improve recruitment and retention, increasing access to school-based mental health services and cutting down on wait times for treatment, among other issues.

    State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said the bill also will provide “training of physicians and pediatricians to be able to handle mental health needs when patients walk through the door instead of farming them out to someone else.”

    State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, said pandemic mitigation procedures are to blame for a lot of the mental health issues children are facing. “We owe it to them as a state, for what we have done to them in the last 18-24 months, to support this piece of legislation,” he said. “We’re here now, our kids are hurting, they need us, so I urge my colleagues to support this legislation.”

    In her support for the bill, state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said, “I cannot emphasize enough how important this bill is to address the mental health needs of all of our children in the state, and all of the other fabulous provisions in the bill that look at workforce development.”

    “We’ve seen the increase in suicidal ideation,” state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said in explaining why the legislation is necessary. “In 2020, the number of adolescents who died of drug overdoses was doubled, and it went up again in 2021.”

    HB 5001 is not the only children’s mental health-related bill circulating in the legislature. Senate Bill 2, An Act Expanding Preschool and Mental and Behavioral Services for Children, is meant as a complementary bill, according to Democratic House leaders. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he expects both to pass.

    The House first had to pass a strike-all amendment before debating the underlying bill due to changes to the bill, but, Linehan said, “it’s not far from what we passed out of committee.” Ritter said there is no “unseen language or ideas that have not been discussed” in the bill.

    Exum noted that Connecticut Children’s Hospital has called the bill “the most transformative piece of children’s mental health legislation that we’ve seen in decades.” Ritter said the bill will cost roughly $35 million for increasing staffing and resources, with SB 2 expected to cost around $25 million.

    Exum delivered an emotional story in her closing comments on the bill about the struggle she and her family had to go through in order to get her son the proper mental health services, including flying to Colorado for an intensive program.

    House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said Wednesday that the House plans to take up SB 2 and that, in general, the House will begin looking at Senate bills in the next day or two.

    s.spinella@theday.com

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