Pa. must make greater mental health care effort

For too long, there has been a stigma around mental health care — but that’s changing with this generation. Students across the commonwealth aren’t afraid to talk about their mental health and that’s what I hear every day.

When I visited Parkland High School in Allentown this week, students bravely told me about their mental health struggles, but they also shared with me their ideas for how we can help. It’s on us to hear them and tackle this crisis head on.

That’s why, in my first budget, I am calling for a significant down payment in mental health support to serve the needs of all Pennsylvanians, but especially our kids. Simply put, Pennsylvania needs more counselors; parents and teachers can’t do it alone. My budget includes $500 million over the next five years to increase the mental health support in Pennsylvania schools, and allows schools to use that funding to best meet their individual needs – whether that’s hiring mental health counselors on-site or employing other services, like tele-mental health.

By making a sustained, long-term investment in student mental health, we are not only helping schools plan, but we are also building a pipeline of trained school-based mental health professionals. By focusing on meeting students where they are, we can ensure our students have the support they deserve whenever they need it.

We know this is a growing problem. As attorney general, I started Safe2Say, an anonymous reporting system for students to report violence and threats of violence. Since we launched the program five years ago, we’ve received over 100,000 tips from students across the commonwealth — but most of the tips weren’t about violence. Instead, 75% were from kids reaching out with mental health issues for themselves and their friends.

That matches the data we’ve seen from other sources. During the past decade, symptoms of depression in young people across the country increased by about 40%. And in Pennsylvania, over 40% of students reported symptoms of depression in 2021, and 18% seriously considered suicide.

We need to be there for our kids, and my budget is the first step.

While we invest in school-based mental health, we also need to invest in community mental health to create those wraparound services kids need after school and over the summer. My budget would restore funding – starting with $20 million this year – in county mental health services, which provide community-based options, which have been hit hard by workforce shortages. I also want to invest $5 million to support Pennsylvania’s 988 crisis hotline and provide dedicated funding for the future, with the goal of ensuring every Pennsylvanian has access to professional crisis support where and when they need it.

When I became governor, I made a promise to address the everyday problems Pennsylvanians face. I’ve visited schools across Pennsylvania, and I’ve asked students what they need.

They have been very clear: they want someone they can talk to, someone who can help them.

And when I talk to parents and educators, I hear how much they want to help. At a National Governors Association roundtable conversation on youth mental health I hosted in Philadelphia last week, I heard firsthand accounts from those on the frontlines of the youth mental health crisis – teachers, parents, mental health experts and students.

Their experiences made it clear we must take a whole-of-government, all-hands-on-deck approach to better understand the obstacles and take action to get families – in particular our kids – the support they deserve.

It’s on us – Democrats and Republicans – to come together in Harrisburg to get this done.

I’m asking lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work with me to pass a commonsense budget that gives schools and county mental health programs the support they need. We will listen to parents, teachers, students, health professionals – and finally deliver real resources.

For too long, mental health has been an afterthought.

Too many of our schools and counties lack the resources to show up when Pennsylvanians need them.

My budget offers a comprehensive solution. Let’s get this done.

Josh Shapiro is the governor of Pennsylvania.

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