COVID has been hard on all of us. Many have said that it has been hardest on the kids, and it seems to keep getting harder. I sit on the House Education Committee and last week we heard about the shortcomings of a program called Success Beyond Six, the program that allows schools to access Medicaid funds to pay for pediatric mental health services.
Under Success Beyond Six, mental health professionals from certain non-profits called Designated Agencies come into our schools to provide mental health services for children and, importantly, to provide outreach beyond school hours to support a child’s parents and family members – something schools can’t do.
At a time where we need mental health professionals more than ever, these agencies are constrained by a problem we hear about almost daily in the news, workforce shortage.
According to testimony before my committee, Success Beyond Six agencies employ roughly 5,900 people statewide, but they had 414 job vacancies in 2019. By last October, that number had increase to 1,077 vacancies.
So, we have fewer professionals and we have more children requiring mental health services. And, according to the testimony we heard, these kids tend to need services for a longer period of time than they did prior to COVID.
These factors, taken together, equal a crisis.
When a Designated Agency is at capacity, they are allowed to not take any more kids. Our schools don’t have the ability. Our schools are obligated to care for every child, not just educate them, even if the school doesn’t have the qualified staff.
Schools are left with no choice but to hire extra paraeducators and counselors to help troubled children. But schools cannot draw down Medicaid dollars for such services. Only Designated Agencies can access these federal funds. Nor can the schools reach out into the homes and families with mental health services, the way Designated Agencies can.
According to the testimony we heard, hiring in the mental health sector is challenged by low entry wages, sometimes as low as $17 an hour with an associate’s degree.
It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Sometimes it involves the danger of being injured by troubled youths, and it is challenging to see the many causes of children in crisis, including adult substance abuse and negligence.
And, as is always the case with attracting workers from out of state, would-be mental health workers often can’t find housing.
The testimony we heard is both timely and compelling. We need educators in our schools to educate and we need mental health professionals to deal with mental health issues. The problem is complex and it will take some work by the various legislative committees to sort things out.
I expect that solutions will include additional funding for Designated Agencies, educational incentives with loan forgiveness for mental health professionals – and creating more housing for all workers.
This year, I think the Legislature has both a strong motivation to alleviate the problem and, fortunately, the necessary funds to do it.