Local officials say more funding is key in mental health battle
Local officials said Friday that they think more funding is necessary to address rising concerns about youth mental health and suicide.
"More money has to be focused on mental health systems for these children in schools," said Mike Vereb, director of government relations for the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.
The resources are already in place, and they're working, it's just a matter of getting more of them, Vereb said, noting some students have been seeking counseling services but finding they were not available.
"We're hearing from students that the help is not there," he said. "The doorway is there, but the help is not there."
Vereb was part of the first of three panels who spoke before Gov. Tom Wolf's Special Council on Gun Violence at the York City School District on Friday, Nov. 22.
The council was created by executive order signed Aug. 16 and includes 18 members representing areas such as public health, safety, law enforcement and education.
Three panels spoke Friday about preventing suicide by firearms. It's the third meeting in a series to explore a number of issues related to gun violence.
Local district and community officials including Linda Brown, the city school district's director of special education, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and a local chapter of anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action attended.
"We've seen the mental health issues increase every single year," said Geoff Kolchin, panelist and program manager for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
According to the 2017 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, 16.5% of all sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade respondents considered suicide in the past year, and 10% attempted suicide, Kolchin said, adding that 14.2% also said it would be easy or somewhat easy to access a handgun.
The Safe2Say Something 24-hour anonymous reporting system, through the Office of the Attorney General, was initiated in public schools statewide in January, and received 23,494 tips through June 30.
The largest number of tips were about bullying and cyber-bullying, with almost 4,000 tips, followed by self-harm, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety.
Now it's a question of where funding can best be directed to help the largest number of families, Kolchin said.
He noted his office added two new programs to its funding list — The Blues Program, which helps high school seniors talk about depression and anxiety together and Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools.
Trauma-informed learning was incorporated into state funding for 2019-20, and recently local schools have been pouring thousands into school counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals.
In terms of firearms in relation to suicide prevention, special council member and state Rep. Eric Wilson, R-Hempfield Township, suggested it would be helpful to break down in surveys whether youth are getting guns from home or in the community.
Council facilitator Jim Copple added that it would be important to also look at cultural of guns in rural versus urban settings.
Kolchin agreed, adding that that's why it's key to address these issues at a district or county level through local resources, rather than with a one-size-fits-all directive from the state.
He said his office is focusing more and more on preventative measures — looking at root causes, not the behaviors themselves.
"You do not wait until someone has a cardiac event," he said, adding that in the same way proactive health measures are put in place, that can be done for mental health.
It's very easy to bypass prevention because it's hard to prove what will happen by putting programs in place, Kolchin said, but the return on investment is much greater.
York City's Brown said after the first panel that her district is developing a social emotional curriculum to address the trauma that feeds into mental health problems — because trauma affects all of her students — and hopes to get state grant funding.
"Trauma doesn't have a zip code," she said.