by Capital-Star Guest Contributor, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 12, 2023
By Chip Abramovic and George Hartwick
A 5th grader walks the hall in a Pennsylvania elementary school. It’s a typical day, filled with spelling tests, math lessons and the constant yearning for recess.
But like a lot of students in the commonwealth, this 5th grader requires some form of mental health support. This student relies on the school to provide services such as counseling, learning support and social development to maximize academic potential and overall mental health.
In the afternoon, the final bell rings, and the student heads for home. However, mental health issues do not cease at the bus stop.
For some children, the problems may be worse at home than they are at school. In these cases, the child, and quite possibly their families, often rely on county mental health services to provide the care they desperately need like supportive housing programs, crisis services and caseworker support.
While the services the child received at school were essential, the care they receive during the other 16 hours of the day, during holidays and throughout the summer, is just as vital. Unfortunately, the base funding for county mental health services that would truly support this child all day and all year has not seen an increase for more than a decade and the system is crumbling before our eyes.
The student in this story could be from anywhere in the state. Whether it’s in urban parts of Dauphin County or the rural areas of Venango County, underinsured children and families across Pennsylvania need and deserve the best mental health care possible.
As counties continue to scramble to provide assistance to those who can’t afford private services, we cannot forget that our schools are only one of many important pieces of the mental health funding puzzle.
Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed increasing county mental health services by $20 million, and counties propose to build on this much-needed investment by calling for a total $150 million increase to the county mental health base, increasing the governor’s proposal to $50 million and redirecting the proposed $100 million for school mental health to be invested more broadly in the county mental health base for better outcomes.
This investment would coordinate care to serve children across the community, including within the schools, while leveraging the existing county mental health system that also connects with other crucial services. By doing this, we maintain the flexibility to address the diverse needs that exist across the 67 counties.
This would be a down payment for the future of Pennsylvania.
We know that underfunding and under-resourcing of mental health services causes increased costs to society – from lower academic performance in schools to higher rates of joblessness and, unfortunately, to higher incarceration rates. In Dauphin County, even though significant efforts have achieved reductions in the number of individuals in the county prison who need treatment for mental illness, roughly 40 percent of incarcerated individuals still need such treatment.
The ratio of funding to demand continues at the current trajectory, children, parents, grandparents and anyone else that relies on county programs, could find themselves traveling long distances for crucial services or worse yet, stop receiving services altogether.
Without a considerable increase to the base funding, we are endangering services and creating more pressure on emergency rooms and those providers who are still able to keep their doors open.
We applaud any effort to address the mental health of our students in Pennsylvania. But as counties, we are simply asking the General Assembly and the current administration to keep that same vision for our students -and their families, friends and neighbors – outside of the classroom as well.
Chip Abramovic is a Venango County Commissioner and current president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. George Hartwick is a Dauphin County Commissioner and current chairperson of the CCAP Human Services Committee. May is Mental Health Awareness month, a time to fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.
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