HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut lawmakers advanced Friday the first of three wide-ranging bills that attempt to address what's been described as a youth mental health crisis, which has been exacerbated in the state by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among other things, the legislation that cleared the Senate on a 33-1 vote would make mobile crisis centers available 24/7 statewide by June 30, 2023, and require the University of Connecticut to study the mental health effects of social media and mobile phone use on children.
Two other bills, which are still awaiting action in the Senate and House of Representatives this session, address in-school and early childhood mental health programs, the state's psychiatric staffing challenges and the availability of treatment. Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said lawmakers hope to send a clear message to children and parents that they understand the challenges they're facing and want to help.
“To the parents, we hear you," said Anwar, a medical doctor. “We are doing this because we want to make sure that our children, your children, are safe and well."
All three bills need to be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly before the legislative session ends May 4.
Following are some highlights of the overall initiative:
MENTAL HEALTH CARE ASSISTANCE
Two of the bills provide financial help to families unable to cover the cost of mental health services for their children. In the bill that passed the Senate on Friday and now awaits action in the House of Representatives, the Department of Children and Families is required to develop eligibility standards, based on “social determinants," for grants to families in need. Another bill would provide grants to uninsured and underinsured families.
HELP FOR STUDENT ATHLETES
The Department of Education is required under the bill that passed Friday to come up with a mental health plan for student athletes to raise awareness about the resources available to them. One goal of the initiative is to help coaches recognize the signs of mental health challenges and refer student athletes to appropriate services. Before the 2023 school year, each school board will be required to implement the plan.
SOCIAL MEDIA STUDY
Under the same bill, the Neag School of Education at UConn will be required to conduct a study of the social media and cell phone use of students and the impact on their mental health. The study will involve students in grades kindergarten through grade 12. Findings from the study will be submitted to the General Assembly by 2024 for possible future legislation.
The bill also requires local school boards to hire or designate an existing employee as a family care coordinator. That person will work with school social workers, school psychologists and school counselors, while also serving as a liaison for the school system with mental health providers.
NO RECESS RESTRICTIONS
School officials will no longer be able to withhold recess as a form of student discipline, under the same bill. The American Association of Pediatrics has said preventing a student from participating in recess can be harmful to the child's social and emotional wellbeing, Anwar said.
The Department of Consumer Protection will be required under the bill to develop new safe storage guidelines for prescription drugs and cannabis in order to prevent children from accessing the substances. Signs will have to be displayed in pharmacies and cannabis retail shops, when they eventually open in Connecticut.
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