Mental health has been the Joint Education Committee’s top topic this interim, and the panel of more than half a dozen lawmakers devoted all of Wednesday morning to listening to state agencies and other groups who have been confronted with rising mental health issues among women. Wyoming children.
Those who spoke testified that K-12 schools play a key role in addressing mental health, serving as an access point for youth who may otherwise be unable to obtain the services they need. They also highlighted the need for early intervention to address Wyoming’s mental health challenges, arguing that schools are an important source.
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“Children are under different pressures now than they were three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” said Jen Davis, health policy and human services adviser to Governor Mark Gordon. “It is different, and we have to think and do it differently.”
Speakers urged the committee to act and strengthen mental health supports in Wyoming’s K-12 system, but lawmakers have gravitated toward the longstanding debate over whether schools are the appropriate place for mental health intervention.
“I don’t know if I’m listening to the Department of Education or the Department of Health,” said Senator Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester. “For me, this is a giant leap into uncharted territory for the Department of Education and a philosophical question we must ask ourselves. Is very far?
Biteman suggested that schools’ incorporation of mental health services goes beyond their educational burden, may lead to an ever-growing list of health services, and may encroach on parental rights.
“Where does it stop?” he said.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers made similar arguments, asserting that the state was overstepping other areas of public life, such as religion, by pushing to expand infrastructure and support for mental health. Arguments that the State should not intervene in the place of churches and families prevailed and narrowed the scope of the Legislative action.
In February, lawmakers passed a bill creating a 988 Suicide Trust Fund and Wyoming Crisis Lifeline, but withdrew the more than $40 million that had been earmarked to support it. Other mental health bills, including one to expand access to licensed professional counselors, have faced similar resistance, with lawmakers questioning the cost and effectiveness of mental health programs.
The education committee had a bill this year that would provide short-term money to expand mental health services in schools, but it died in the Senate in part because some lawmakers objected to equally distributing the money to small and large school districts.
School district leaders and education groups who spoke to the committee unequivocally called for greater support for mental health services in schools. They pointed to a body of research showing that mental health issues undermine academic performance.
“Students who have access to quality mental health services come to the classroom prepared and ready to learn,” said Tate Mullen, director of government affairs for the Wyoming Education Association.
Superintendents from three Wyoming school districts also explained that mental health and behavioral issues are growing exponentially among the state’s youth, impacting schools. JoAnne Flanagan, who leads Fremont County School District No. 25, listed data point after data point. Two years ago, the school district had four students admitted to acute psychiatric care for self-harm and suicide. In April, the district had 27. The time students spent in residential care at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute increased from five “student days” to 357, Flanagan said.
Both Flanagan and Teresa Chaulk, superintendent of Lincoln County School District No. 1 in Kemmerer, broke down in tears as they discussed the toll suicide has taken on their schools and communities.
His observations and statistics are supported by data showing that Wyoming has significant issues with youth mental health. Approximately half of Wyoming youth with major depression, about 3,000 children, do not receive any mental health treatment, according to Mental Health America’s 2023 “State of Mental Health in America” report.
The Wyoming Department of Health’s Prevention Needs Assessment Survey shows that nearly one in 10 students in the state has tempted suicide last year, according to a Department of Education presentation.
Flanagan said he agrees it’s important to define the role of schools in addressing mental health, but the evidence is overwhelming.
“I think there are those who think there is no paper, but I can tell you that these kids walk into our school every day and we cannot ignore that. We simply cannot ignore this,” Flanagan said. “We would love for all of our children to walk through the door with all of their needs met before they come to us. It is not a reality.”
Advocates for mental health care in schools found support from Senator Charlie Scott, R-Casper, who reminded the committee that schools have long helped students struggling with their mental health.
“The problems we’re having there (with mental health) and the problems with substance abuse have consequences,” Scott said. “Schools have had to deal with them because they have the kids in front of them.”
Davis spoke urgently calling for action on young people’s mental health.
“We need a change,” she said.