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Gov. Shapiro Discusses Youth Mental Health Needs, Highlights $500 Million Investment During Lehigh Valley Visit | WDIY Local News

Governor Josh Shapiro visits Parkland High School in Allentown to meet with students and hear about their experiences with mental health and to highlight his proposed budget investments in mental health resources for schools and counties.
Johnny Palmadessa, Commonwealth Media Services
Gov. Josh Shapiro visited Parkland High School May 25 to meet with students and hear about their experiences with mental health, and to highlight his proposed budget investments in mental health resources for schools and counties. Pictured are Parkland High School principal Nate Davidson (left), State. Rep Mike Schlossberg, D-132nd (second from left), Gov. Josh Shapiro (center), Parkland senior Reva Gandhi (second from right) and State. Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-16th (right).

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro says he wants to increase funding to address youth mental health needs in schools.

Shapiro recently visited Parkland High School, along with Democratic State Rep. Mike Schlossberg and Republican State Sen. Jarrett Coleman, to hold a roundtable with students to hear about their mental health challenges.

Parkland High School Principal Nate Davidson said his school’s staff members work to address students’ health needs, providing mentoring services for academic and social/emotional difficulties, mental health assessments, referrals to outpatient professionals, partnerships with local hospitals, and more.

But he said the need for these resources is “consistent and growing.”

“We constantly are being told that our hospitals don’t have enough psych beds, that there are not enough therapists and psychiatrists, that their waitlists are too long, and that health insurance does not cover students’ therapy,” he explained.

Davidson said these issues could be addressed by an increased investment from the state government, and said the community needs to work together to navigate the stressors and challenges faced by students.

“We need to be vigilant, as a community, to monitor youth mental health,” Davidson said. “We as a community need to ask questions, and show care and concern for one another.”

Shapiro’s budget proposal calls for allocating $500 million over the next five years to help schools fund mental health counselors and services on site. It also calls for dedicating $20 million in 2023-24, up to $60 million annually by 2027-28, to restore mental health funding for counties.

Schlossberg, a longtime advocate for mental health, said there continue to be challenges around having open, honest, and candid conversations about mental illness.

“While your generation has made tremendous strides, you still wouldn’t talk about taking antidepressants in the same breath that you would talk about taking cholesterol medication, or heart medication,” he said, “and that needs to change.

“The only way that will change is if the voice of our youngest generations, of people in high school right now, of people, like my son who’s 12 or my daughter who’s 10, are willing to speak about their own struggles.

“But your voice means nothing if people in power don’t actually do more.”

Schlossberg said Shapiro’s proposed mental health investment, while representing a “significant change” in how mental health has been treated and funded, but said it is also not enough.

He said counties need more assistance to better fund programs and hospital beds, and said more funding is needed for the 988 suicide prevention hotline.

“And the only way that we are truly going to get to where we need to be from a public policy perspective is if people like you, like the high school students who are here, are willing to keep telling us what you need.

“That’s why I’m so grateful that so many of you were willing to do just that, so sincerely, thank you.”

The state House Human Services Committee recently approved House Bill 849, authored by Schlossberg, which would allocate $100 million in federal funding toward addressing mental health needs for both adults and youth.

Providing a student perspective, Parkland senior Reva Gandhi said she was grateful for Shapiro’s investment in schools, particularly in the concept of “flexible dollars” that will allow schools to meet the needs of their students.

“The reality is simple. Not every school is starting from the same place of development,” she said, “and further, not every school requires the same set of resources and development for student assistance programs.

“If we want our mental health programs to reach a wide variety of students, the plans themselves must also be individualized.”

Gandhi said she was glad that Shapiro met with students, and said integrating students’ voices and perspectives are important when considering mental health programs that would impact them.

“We are the students that after all go through the homework assignments, the tests and the projects for school, while also attending athletic practices, debate competitions, leader performances and working jobs, or many jobs, of our own,” she said.

“With students doing so much and facing potential stressors in their own life, it is imperative that the commonwealth supports them.”

Shapiro said it was inspiring to see students speak openly about their mental health, their needs, and the changes they want to see in schools.

“And all of the data suggests that young people are in need, and that young people are the ones we need to listen to in order to guide our progress moving forward,” he said.

Shapiro said his budget is a statement of principles, and that one of his “firm principles” is combatting the mental health crisis.

He called his $500 million allocation for school “unprecedented” and “historic,” and Shapiro said as budget negotiations continue in Harrisburg, lawmakers from both parties understand the importance of addressing the subject of mental health.

“I think this issue transcends party lines and the silly politics that often times divides us,” he explained. “And what we’re focused on is commonsense solutions to a pressing problem that we need to combat right now with the help of young people here in this school district.”

Shapiro said equity is important when providing funding for mental health services, and he said his funding structure is designed to provide an equitable breakdown.

"So rather than just everybody getting a dollar, the dollars are available from a formula perspective, so it will drive toward the schools that need it most, based on the applications from that school district,” he said.

He called data showing the levels of inequity “irrefutable,” and said it indicates how funding needs to be more fairly distributed.

“Young Black boys and girls are four times more likely to contemplate suicide or die by suicide than young white children, that is simply a stat that is irrefutable from the standpoint of demonstrating the inequity,” he said, “and we need to drive resources out to begin to address that.”

Shapiro also a student in the roundtable told him that teachers who usually provide immediate care require more training.

He said this was an opportunity to invest in the current population performing these services, but added that more professionals are still needed.

“We need to open up the pipeline and have more people doing this work, more school psychologists, more psychiatrists, more mental health professionals,” he explained.

According to a release from the governor’s office, students in the Allentown area have reported an increase in mental health challenges.

In 2021, 18% of surveyed students in Lehigh County reported engaging in self-harm, and 40%felt depressed or sad on most days. The release also said three Lehigh County schools do not have mental health counselors, leaving over 1,400 students without those services.

(Original air-date: 5/29/23)

Sarit "Siri" Laschinsky was WDIY's News and Public Affairs Director until 2023.
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