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Mental health experts warn Ky. lawmakers SB 150 will hinder data collection

The Kentucky State Capitol Building
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Lawmakers who supported the provision in SB 150 argued that it was needed to make sure parents were fully informed and onboard with mental health offerings at schools.

Experts told a legislative task force new restrictions on surveying students’ mental health will make it harder to understand issues youth are facing.

Speaking before the Task Force on School and Campus Safety Tuesday, Kentucky Mental Health Coalition Executive Director Sheila Schuster said provisions in the state’s sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ lawwill make it difficult to administer anonymous surveys that collect information about mental health, suicidality, drug, alcohol and tobacco use, and other risky behaviors among Kentucky kids.

“With Senate Bill 150 ... it's an opt in rather than an opt out for the parents,” Schuster said, noting the law now requires families to give express permission for their children to participate in longstanding surveys, such as the Kentucky Incentives for Prevention and Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior.

“We're estimating that we're going to go from an 80% response rate for kids to about a 20% response rate,” she said. “So we're not going to have enough data to know what those trends are. We're not going to be able to do the comparison of trends with our previous data.”

The surveys have provided important public health information. Last year’s survey showed 22% of students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 reported serious psychological distress, a significant increase since before the pandemic.

It also showed substance use increased among students experiencing psychological distress.

Joe Bargione, with the youth mental health advocacy nonprofit called the Bounce Coalition, also said the law presents “a little bit of a challenge” in collecting accurate information.

Lawmakers who supported the provision in SB 150 argued that it was needed to make sure parents were fully informed and onboard with mental health offerings at schools. The provision had support from conservative parents opposed to school-based mental health care that is affirming of LGBTQ+ students.

Experts recommend more school nurses, better trauma-informed planning and teams

Schuster and Bargione’s warning came during a larger discussion on policies that could improve school safety and student mental health.

Schuster praised lawmakers’ “wisdom and foresight” in passing the 2019 School Safety Act, known as Senate Bill 1, and its update in 2020, known as Senate Bill 8.

The measures were a direct response to the 2018 fatal shooting at Marshall County High School. They called for more mental health professionals in schools, anti-bullying initiatives, suicide prevention and trauma-informed safety plans, along with adding school-based police and technology for more secure entries to schools.

But both experts said there was room improvement, especially when it comes to equipping students with the skills and support they need to manage challenging environments and emotions.

“We really need to come back to that notion of prevention,” Schuster said.

Schuster and Bargione had many concrete recommendations for improving student safety and mental health. Both said the new “trauma-informed plans” schools are required to create under SB 1 need to be regularly reviewed, updated and shared statewide so that districts can learn from one another.

“It's a missed opportunity for us that we have 171 trauma-informed plans by all the school districts, and nobody's looking at data collectively to say, ‘Hey, listen, here's some really good strategies working,’” Bargione said.

Schuster said schools’ trauma-informed teams, required under SB 1, could be better coordinated.

“We're not using them, or just simply not using them to their full capacity,” Schuster said. “And you could do a lot of these things and it's not going to cost you any money.”

Schuster said the teams should meet regularly, and that they should be sure to include school resource officers, who are required to have significant training in trauma, as well as the Family Resource and Youth Services Centers coordinators. That team should also include a school nurse, Schuster said.

“We need a full-time nurse in every school building all day, every day,” she said, noting that nurses often become the “confidant” of students who need to talk about things bothering them.

“If I'm a fourth grader or a fifth grader or a middle schooler … I'm not going to raise my hand in that classroom and say, ‘I need to go see the school psychologist,’” Schuster explained. “But they are very likely to say, ‘I've got a stomach ache, and I need to go see the school nurse.’ And that school nurse ends up being almost a mental health liaison.”

Data presented during the meeting showed the state is making progress in increasing the number of mental health practitioners in schools. Schuster said data from the Kentucky Department of Education shows the 2023 ratio was one provider for every 306 students, down from one provider for every 311 students in 2022.

Under SB 8, the state has a goal of getting to one provider for every 250 students.

Schuster also encouraged lawmakers to look at policies that address underlying causes of trauma, including poverty, discrimination and poor housing.

“Sometimes it's from a whole group of people feeling like they have no voice,” she explained.

“As legislators you might really think about, ‘What are our economic supports to families? What are the social norms that protect against violence and adversity?’”

Lawmakers on the committee expressed interest in making adjustments to the trauma-informed plan requirement, as well as encouraging schools to promote peer-to-peer counseling.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

News educationKentuckyYouth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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