NEWARK – A series of bills designed to collectively address mental health issues for Delaware children and adults through preventive measures such as annual wellness checks and more mental health practitioners in middle schools is now law after Governor Carney signed the measures Wednesday.
The three bills, sponsored by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, are a continuation of recent efforts to vastly improve mental health services available to Delawareans.
“We are in the midst of a mental health crisis in Delaware that began well before the pandemic and has only accelerated in the last two years. Anyone who has paid attention to this issue should be alarmed at the especially brutal toll this crisis has taken on our children,” said Rep. Longhurst. “Teachers across the state are seeing it every day in their classrooms. So many of their students come to school with significant unmet needs that impact their ability to learn, such as hunger, homelessness, trauma, and other untreated mental health issues. Without adequate resources to support our students, these challenges create the kind of disruptions in school that impact learning and affect all students.
“Additionally, we encourage people all the time to get an annual physical, enroll in a diabetes prevention program, schedule a mammogram, see your gynecologist, get screened for colon cancer, the list goes on. These are all covered by insurance. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health.”
The bills were signed Wednesday at Sean’s House in Newark, a tribute to the late Sean Locke and a free resource for young adults ages 14-24. It is a space designed to help members of the community improve their health and wellbeing and connect with their peers in a safe and confidential environment.
House Bill 300 would create new positions for school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists in all Delaware middle schools, effectively lowering the ratio of students to mental health practitioners. The bill builds on the successful passage last year of House Bill 100, which created a structure to place these practitioners in every elementary school statewide.
HB 300 would establish a mental health services unit for Delaware middle schools, phased in over three years, beginning in fiscal 2023. When fully implemented, the measure would arrive at a final ratio of a full-time school counselor, school social worker, or licensed clinical social worker for every 250 full-time equivalent students grades 6-8. Additionally, a unit ratio of a full-time school psychologist for every 700 full-time equivalent students.
“Mental health is at the center of everything I do, both in my work as a legislator and as a social worker,” said Sen. Marie Pinkney, Senate prime sponsor of House Bill 300. “The earlier we can provide preventative mental health services to adolescents, the more likely they are to thrive as adults. I am excited for what House Bill 300 will do to address the mental health crisis we are seeing in our schools and look forward to expanding on this work in the years to come.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five youth are affected by a mental health disorder, and untreated mental illness has been shown to lead to increased risk of dropout, homelessness, substance abuse, chronic illnesses, incarceration, and possibly suicide. However, students with access to mental health services in school-based health centers are 10 times more likely to seek care for mental health or substance abuse than youth without access.
House Bill 303 would guarantee insurance coverage for an annual, pre-deductible visit with a licensed mental health clinician with at least a master’s degree. The Behavioral Health Well Check must include a review of medical history, evaluation of adverse childhood experiences and use of a validated mental health screening tool.
“We can’t begin to address the mental health crisis in this nation until we make sure everyone has access to affordable mental health services,” said Sen. Nicole Poore, prime Senate sponsor of HB 303. “This legislation takes a major step forward in that effort by making Behavioral Health Well Check as routine and accessible as an annual visit to your primary care doctor. I want to commend Rep. Longhurst for putting mental health at the center of her legislative agenda for the welfare of all Delawareans.”
House Bill 301 would require the Department of Education to establish a statewide mental health educational curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 in each school district and charter school, tailored to the developmental needs of students at each grade level.
A 2017 survey of Delaware high school students found that in the preceding year, more than one-quarter felt sad or hopeless every day for two weeks in a row, 16% seriously considered attempting suicide, and 7.2% attempted suicide.
“While so many people experience their first mental health crisis as a child or teen, our society has long been slow to recognize those early experiences and is often ill-prepared to provide young people with the tools and support they need, which only serves to reinforce many of the stigmas that prevent young people and adults from seeking treatment,” said Sen. Sarah McBride, chair of the Senate Health Committee and Senate prime sponsor of HB 301.
“I want to commend Rep. Valerie Longhurst for recognizing that we all experience difficult moments in our lives and working to normalize conversations around mental health, starting at an early age. I believe strongly that the education programs created by this bill will help to save lives.”