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Lawmakers seek increase in school mental health services

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers are looking at ways to increase mental health services for school students, and a recent report has illuminated where the help is needed most.

The legislative task force, led by the state Department of Health, began meeting late in 2021 to look at how and where the services should be offered.

In a report released last week, the group found that roughly two-thirds of 1,000 schools statewide lack on-site mental health centers. That’s increasingly concerning because hospitals have been overwhelmed with children in crisis during the pandemic and it’s more costly — and less effective — to treat children after they reach crisis stage, the New Haven Register reported.

“The need increased during the pandemic,” said Verna Ruffin, superintendent of Waterbury Public Schools, which the task force identified as having the most schools in need. “People are living it right now.”

A number of proposals circulating in the legislature seek to address the problem including one in the Senate that would set aside $21.8 million for the Department of Public Health to expand the school-based health sites. The task force report found that even with that spending about 100 schools that need services might still be unable to offer them, the Register reported.

Ruffin told the newspaper that school officials in her district noticed an uptick in violent behavior when students returned to full-time, in-person learning last fall, but that the introduction of extra counselors at some schools provided some relief.

School-based health centers typically are run by outside organizations such as community health networks, and provide services to children for free.

Tricia Orozco, who directs East Hartford-based InterCommunity Health Care’s school-based health program, told the Register there are waitlists at most of its seven school sites.

“We’ve established that there’s a great demand for services, however in the absence of funding, how do school-based health centers hire more staff?” she said. “School-based health centers are frequently the only health care these students are receiving.”

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