Community Conversations: Discussing mental health treatment in schools

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By Jarred Meeks

Local residents expressed concern as to how legislators will determine where “the intersection between parental rights and mental health treatment” exists at a recent legislative breakfast.

State lawmakers Sen. Brian Buchanan, Rep. Tim Brown, Rep. Donna Schaibley, Rep. Jeff Thompson and Sen. Phil Boots gathered Feb. 1 at the Lebanon Public Library to discuss topics most important to Boone County residents. How to navigate mental health care in schools was among the primary topics.

In previous legislative sessions, including last year’s, bills were introduced advocating treatment options for mental health care in schools. Some were tied to bills addressing school safety.

Mental health care in schools, and how it relates to school safety, has entered public discussion following an uptick in mass shootings in recent years. The shootings have particularly affected schools and college campuses, including one at Noblesville West Middle School in 2018 that injured a student and a teacher.

This year, another school health care-focused bill has been introduced with eight Republican co-authors and five Democrat co-authors. Senate bill 246 would require a school to certify to the Dept. of Homeland Security that it has a memorandum of understanding in place with a community mental health center or provider certified or licensed by the state to provide services to students before applying for a grant from the Indiana Secured School Safety Grant Program.

Since its inception in 2013, the Indiana Secured School Safety Grant Program has awarded more than $72 million in matching grants to Indiana school districts to address safety threats.

Under the bill’s current language, schools would not be able to refer a child to a mental health care provider without the permission of a child’s parent or guardian. It also states that schools would not note any diagnoses in the child’s school records or any other information regarding their mental health, with the exception of medications the child might take.

Last year, a wide-ranging school safety bill was expunged of all references to mental health in the last days of the legislative session because of parental rights concerns. The bill, House bill 1004, which passed, would have allowed schools to pursue grant money dedicated to improve school safety to fund mental health services before the references were removed.

“I think teachers can identify some kids that have some troubles, some issues,” Buchanan said. “And the whole (question) last year, probably more so this year, is, where is that intersection between parental rights and mental health treatment?”

Buchanan acknowledged the answer is difficult to determine, but he said he would support a third party being involved to offer mental health services, but only with a parent’s consent.

“You want to get children the mental health treatment they need, but you also have to protect parental rights,” Buchanan said.

Pascal Fettig, executive director of Mental Health America of Boone County, a local chapter of a national nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all Americans, said that while parents should be involved, early identification of mental health issues is important for the quality of life of children.

Fettig said many of the early identifiers of mental health issues are misidentified as behavior problems by nonprofessionals.

“It needs to be diagnosed,” Fettig said. “We really need that early identification. The quicker you treat it when it starts, the better the quality of life, and I think professionals are the ones who truly need to identify and treat (issues).”

Jill Hardee, a fourth-grade teacher at Stokes Elementary, said it’s easy for her and other teachers to identify which children’s families need to consider mental health treatment for their child. One of the problems she has observed is parents refuse to get their child treatment based on a teacher’s recommendation. Another problem she sees is parents can’t afford the treatment that their child needs.

Another legislative breakfast will be held from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Feb. 22 at Hussey Mayfield Memorial Public Library, 250 N. 5th St., in Zionsville.

Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library will host a third legislative breakfast in Boone County from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Feb. 22 at 250 N. 5th St. Registration isn’t required.

 Where to receive mental health care for children in Boone County

To learn more about mental health services offered to children in Boone County, visit Mental Health America of Boone County’s website, mhaboonecounty.org. It provides a list of school-based services.

The Boone County Health Center has a mental health department that services all ages. It assists in assessments, individual counseling and family counseling. For more, visit boonecohealth.org/services/mental-health/.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration also provides information for finding child mental health care in Boone County. For more, visit in.gov/fssa/dmha/2489.htm.

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