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Legislators expected to focus on children’s mental health

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JESSIKA HARKAY
/
CTMIRROR.ORG
Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, who serves as the chair of the Education Committee, was joined by Rep. Kathleen McCarty and members of the Connecticut Education Association Tuesday morning. The group spoke about prioritizing solutions toward teacher shortages, student mental health and funding throughout Connecticut school districts.

Mental health support for kids may be a theme in committees that deal with children’s issues this session, a continuation of the work legislators started last session with the passage of three sweeping bills focused on children’s mental health.

Both the education and children’s committees plan to focus on mental health, as well as other issues, including more support for educators and preventing sex crimes against children, committee leadership and advocates said Tuesday.

“I cannot imagine a time when children’s mental health will not be a focus,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, a Democrat from Cheshire and co-chair of the Committee on Children. “We’re going to focus entirely on helping kids grow into happy, productive members of society.”

The continued focus on mental health comes as many youths across the country are dealing with heightened anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Isolation and disruptions to routine during the pandemic exacerbated many existing mental health issues for children, and in 2021 the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a national youth mental health crisis.

A December 2022 report from the Task Force to Study Comprehensive Needs of Children in the State also discussed the need for more mental health care for people of all ages, including more support for kids who experience trauma and more places where people can access health care.

Lawmakers called mental health the defining issue of last session, and the conversation is expanding beyond students, as legislators plan to emphasize educators themselves and how to curb the onset of stress and burnout and address a teaching shortage that heightened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can’t do any of the work in education unless we have the teachers in the classroom,” said Rep. Kathleen McCarty, a Waterford Republican who serves as a ranking member on the Education Committee. “We know that in this past pandemic, we really put an awful lot of new responsibilities on our teachers to look at the social, emotional and academic restorative practices. There were more and more responsibilities put on the teachers, and they went through an awful lot of stress and anxiety trying to meet these needs.”

In a joint press conference Tuesday, lawmakers and members of the Connecticut Education Association discussed the importance of making education a more attractive profession, which begins with allocating funds to raise salaries and provide better retirement options in hopes of diversifying the field, they said.

“Specifically in those communities of color … [students] are seeing their teachers stressed to the max with everything they’re asked to do,” said Rep. Jeff Currey, Education Committee co-chair and a Democrat from East Hartford. “So why, in any world, would they want to do that? … It just makes absolutely no sense. So, if we can get the additional resources to alleviate some of their pressure, hopefully we’ll see additional folks want to try to get into that profession.”

Likewise, several members of the CEA advocated that although financial investment is a priority, so is providing in-class solutions, including offering more prep time to educators, reducing class sizes and offering mentorship opportunities to young teachers.

“We have an opportunity to be creative and to make positive, and proactive, changes to education,” CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey said. “This is an investment that goes down to supporting kids’ needs.”

While many committees started the session with organizational meetings that contained few action items, the legislative Committee on Children kicked off the session Tuesday by voting to work on nearly 20 measures with details to be filled in as the session progresses.

Ideas and details in the bills will go through the public hearing process, Linehan said.

Republicans on the committee objected to that method of passing bills, saying they didn’t have enough details to vote on an idea.

“I think that we do need to be a little bit more frugal with what we are doing in terms of cost and effectiveness,” said Rep. Anne Dauphinais, a Republican from Killingly and a ranking member on the Children’s Committee. Dauphinais added that she hopes to look at parental rights this session.

Children’s Committee leadership plans to tackle issues ranging from licensure of municipal summer camps to the safe storage of cannabis to the creation of a state police sting operation unit focused on the online sexual abuse of minors.

The committee passed four bill titles that broadly address children’s programs, safety, health and services. They also voted to draft a committee bill “concerning the mental, physical and emotional wellness of children.”

“We’re jumping in and getting started,” Linehan said in an interview.

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