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Matthew Bahn told a powerful story at a hearing before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee.

Bahn, 22, has struggled with mental illness all his life, entering the legal system for aggressive behavior that was a product of his condition. But it wasn't until he hit rock bottom that he found hope in a residential treatment program.

He pretended to apply the coping mechanisms, and "by pretending to do it, you're actually doing it, and I found out it actually works," he said.

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said she organized the hearing on March 28 to gather information toward policy related to mental health after former York Suburban Superintendent Michele Merkle reached out to her about the issues following teen suicides in the fall.

Merkle was caught on video vandalizing former Assistant Superintendent Patricia Maloney's vehicle in 2017 and was accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. She resigned in September 2017.

Pennsylvania's suicide rate is notably higher than the national average — increasing by 34 percent from 1999 to 2016, Merkle said, and she cited a decline in emotional intelligence and resiliency and an increase in mental health issues.

If left unsolved, these issues could lead to larger societal problems, she said.

The Democratic committee held the hearing at the York College Center for Community Engagement. Attending were vice chairwoman Patty Kim, Harrisburg; Margo Davidson, Delaware County; and chairman Mike Sturla, Lancaster County.

Early intervention: Bahn said his success was rare (his program only had a 10 percent success rate), and so many others did not have the same experience.

"I did not see a single success story in there," he said. "All you saw around you was people failing — getting kicked out of programs to go to a more severe program."

It's for that reason that Bahn — a member of Bell's Oasis House, an international clubhouse community for adults with mental illness to learn independence and life skills —  advocates for funding to early intervention programs.

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Sturla agreed with Bahn, saying that for the past two years he's been working toward action that would address adverse childhood experiences, but he did not see much support in the Legislature until Gov. Tom Wolf shared his support for early intervention programs in his recent budget address.

Lawmakers cannot argue for spending taxpayer dollars on treatment programs that address these issues after jail time if they will not support programs that could prevent the issues to begin with, Sturla said.

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Children's mental health: Two panels spoke at the committee hearing on struggles with addressing mental health in children and what's still needed.

The first panel, from York City School District, mentioned a shortage of psychiatrists, limited parent involvement — not always because of parent choice — and an increase in students with mental health needs.

Of 6,000 students in the district, 1,300 have individualized education programs, according to  district occupational therapist Kristin Shillingsford. 

The panelists advocated for a holistic approach in which intervention programs could be offered at school — where parents have easier access — and stressed addressing parents' needs as well.

It's also a community problem, as families are saddled with burdens at home such as poverty, violence and racism, said Danielle Brown, principal of McKinley K-8.

"That hurricane shows up at my door in a 5-year-old," she said.

York Suburban technology integrator Aly Cunningham — who was on the second panel — added that the problem doesn't just affect urban communities.

The process of getting a child from a crisis center to an inpatient stay is lengthy and exhausting, she said, and "the bed will not be in York County because there are none."

She also said teachers need more guidance in transitioning students back to school. They do not realize that many residential programs do not allow computers, so any work assigned that requires internet access cannot be done, she said.

Merkle suggested a commission or task force to research and find the best programs and make recommendations.

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Sturla and Hill-Evans were  receptive to that idea, and Sturla additionally suggested finding a way to modify the state funding formula to ensure students with mental health needs are getting the funding they need.

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