Mental Health Trails Metal Detectors in School Safety Dollars

By: - March 13, 2019 12:00 am

Mourners wait for the start of a prayer vigil after a gunman shot and killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, in May 2018. Texas and other states are considering more funding for mental health services in schools to prevent school violence. David J. Phillip/The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — After a gunman shot and killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to make the state’s public schools safe for students and teachers.

“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” he said at a news conference following the May 18 shooting. “It’s time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again in the history of the state of Texas.”

In August, Abbott issued a school safety action plan. And in his State of the State address in January he declared the issue an emergency item for the state’s biennial legislative session.

But Abbott, a Republican, also made it clear that in gun-loving Texas, school safety measures won’t include taking guns away from people considered a danger to themselves or others, known as “red flag” laws.

Instead, the debate is over how much state money to invest in metal detectors, alarm systems and surveillance cameras versus school counselors and mental health assessments.

So far, physical security measures are garnering the lion’s share of dollars in legislative spending proposals. But mental health advocates say they’re confident that the state will make the first substantial investment in school mental health services in decades.

That’s a big step for a state that recently rated second to last in state mental health spending per capita, said Angela Kimball, policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Texas is finally putting its money where its mouth is.”

Nationwide, the trail of school shootings of the past five years has prompted more states to invest in school mental health initiatives than at any other time in recent history, she said. “Mental health’s time has come.”

Beyond Texas

Last year, two states enacted laws requiring public schools to include mental health education as part of their permanent curriculum. New York mandated mental health training for K-12 students, and Virginia required it for high school students in the ninth and 10th grades.

This year, South Carolina and New Jersey are considering similar proposals, and Florida has enacted an initiative to raise awareness of mental illness in public schools.

Minnesota and Washington state are considering legislation that would substantially increase publicly funded mental health services for adults and children.

Whether they quell school violence, Kimball said, these new investments in child mental health services likely will result in higher graduation rates, lower incarceration rates and reduced spending for health care and social services.

More than half of lifetime mental illnesses begin before age 14, according to NAMI, yet the average person waits 10 years after the first symptoms occur before getting treatment.

Depression and anxiety are rising among U.S. teens, and whether they suffer from the conditions themselves or not, 7 in 10 say that that the mental disorders are major problems among their peers, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center. (Both Stateline and the Pew Research Center are supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.)

The rate of adolescents experiencing major depression surged 30 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to a study in Pediatrics, rising to an estimated 2.2 million 12- to 17-year-olds reporting major depression, according to the most recent federal data.

Teen suicides also have spiked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-old boys increased by nearly a third between 2007 and 2015; the suicide rate among girls the same age more than doubled. 

School shootings are considered both a symptom and a cause of teens’ deteriorating mental health.

More than 221,000 kids experienced gun violence at their schools since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. And last year was the deadliest on record.

Gunmen killed 56 people in U.S. school shootings in 2018, including eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Texas. It was the second-deadliest shooting that year behind one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people in February.

Nationwide, more than a hundred others were wounded by gunfire in 2018, including 13 in Santa Fe and 17 in Parkland. The incidents launched a high-profile debate about how far to go with gun control, but they also ignited a new conversation about students’ emotional needs.

“Policymakers have been talking more about youth mental health and the effects of school shootings on kids, but it’s taken a long time to get the kind of traction we’re starting to see now,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, a nonprofit that advocates for better mental health care.

Austin’s Approach

In weighing school mental health funding options, Abbott asked lawmakers to consider a program developed at Texas Tech University — known as the Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral, or TWITR, project — that uses psychological screenings to determine whether students in junior high through high school may be at risk of violence to themselves or others.

Once identified, students are removed from school and offered treatment via telemedicine. Since it was developed in 2014, it has been used in a handful of mostly rural school districts and has resulted in dozens of middle- and high-school students receiving treatment.

But mental health experts say that removing kids from school when they exhibit potentially violent behavior is not the best approach for the students’ long-term mental health.

Here in Austin, students diagnosed with a mental disorder can receive treatment on school grounds.

The Austin Independent School District’s mental health centers, developed eight years ago in collaboration with the city police, have become a model for the rest of the state.

The program was created in response to near daily violent incidents at Austin’s schools that required police to intervene, said Tracy Spinner, health services director for the school district. Within a year after the program was up and running, violent incidents became a rarity, she said.

Not all school districts in Texas likely can afford on-campus mental health centers staffed by licensed therapists like the ones in nearly every public school in Austin.

High property taxes and home values here in Austin provide higher-than-average school funding, though much of Austin’s property tax revenue goes to fund the rest of the state’s school districts under a Texas school-revenue sharing program dubbed the “Robin Hood” plan.

That program, too, is under debate as a top priority item on the governor’s agenda this legislative session.

Regardless of any realignment of school funding, Austin is committed to maintaining its school mental health centers in which not just students, but also their parents and teachers, receive as many therapy sessions as needed to alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of mental disorders.

“I’m hoping,” Spinner said, “that before lawmakers think about spending $200,000 to equip a school with metal detectors, they’ll consider how many therapists that those same dollars would pay for.”

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.