Lawmakers found themselves once again debating the role of schools in addressing mental health during Wednesday’s education committee meeting in Casper, extending a debate that consumed the Wyoming Legislature during this year’s session.
Mental health was the top topic of the Joint Education Committee this interim, and the panel of more than half a dozen lawmakers devoted all of Wednesday morning to hearing from state agencies and other groups that have been confronted with growing mental health issues among Wyoming’s children.
Those who spoke testified that K-12 schools play a key role in addressing mental health, serving as a point of access for youth who otherwise may be unable to get the services that they need. They also highlighted the necessity of early intervention in tackling Wyoming’s mental health challenges, arguing schools are an important source.
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“Kids have different pressures now than what they did three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” said Jen Davis, the health and human services policy advisor for Gov. Mark Gordon. “It’s different, and we have to think and do different.”
Speakers urged the committee to act and bolster mental health supports in Wyoming’s K-12 system, but lawmakers gravitated to the long-held 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 Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester. “To me this is a very giant leap into uncharted territory for the Department of Education and a philosophical question that we have to ask ourselves. Is this too far?”
Biteman suggested that schools’ incorporation of mental health services goes beyond their educational charge, could lead to an ever-expanding slate of health services and could encroach on parental rights.
“Where does it stop?” he said.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers made similar arguments while asserting that the state was overstepping other areas of public life, such as religion, in pushing for expanded mental health infrastructure and support. Those arguments that the state should not intervene in the place of churches and families held sway and narrowed the scope of the Legislature’s action.
In February, lawmakers passed a bill creating a trust fund for Wyoming’s 988 suicide and crisis lifeline but stripped it of 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, faced similar pushback, with lawmakers questioning the cost and efficacy of mental health programs.
The education committee had one bill this year that would have provided short-term money to expand mental health services in schools, but it died in the Senate in part because some lawmakers opposed how it distributed the money equally 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 that shows mental health issues hurt academic performance.
“Students who have access to quality mental health care services come to the classroom prepared and ready to learn,” said Tate Mullen, the government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association.
Superintendents from three Wyoming school districts also explained that mental and behavioral health issues are growing exponentially among the state’s youth, affecting 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. As of April, the district had 27. The time students have spent in residential care at Wyoming Behavioral Institute has ballooned from five “student days” to 357, Flanagan said.
Both Flanagan and Teresa Chaulk, the superintendent for Lincoln County School District No. 1 in Kemmerer, teared up when discussing the toll that suicide has taken on their schools and communities.
Their observations and statistics are backed up by data that shows Wyoming has significant problems with youth mental health. Roughly half of Wyoming youth with major depression, some 3,000 kids, 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 almost one out of every 10 students in the state has attempted suicide in the last year, according to a Department of Education presentation.
Flanagan said she agreed that it is important to define the role of schools in addressing mental health, but the evidence is unmistakable.
“I think there are some that think there is no role, but I can tell you these kids walk into our school every single day, and we can’t ignore it. We simply can’t ignore that,” Flanagan said. “We would love nothing more than for all of our children to walk through the door with all of their needs met before they come to us. It’s not a reality.”
Supporters of mental health assistance in schools found the backing of Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, who reminded the committee that schools have long helped students struggling with their mental health.
“The troubles we’re having there (with mental health) and the troubles with drug abuse have consequences,” Scott said. “The schools have had to deal with them because they’ve got the kids in front of ‘em.”
Davis spoke with urgency appealing for action on youth mental health.
“We need a change,” she said.