In a time where more and more students are feeling unsafe at school and struggling with their mental health, Pennsylvania lawmakers have recently approved the 2022-2023 budget to include $100 million for school safety and another $100 million for mental health initiatives.
Each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts will receive more than $200,000 from the state: a $100,000 base grant for safety and security spending and an additional $100,000 grant for in-school mental health services. Charter schools will receive $70,000 base grants for mental health resources, and each district will receive another grant based on the school’s daily average attendance rates.
Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-West View) worked diligently on the Senate Education committee to allocate funding for these essential services. “Every single time I talk to students, educators or any adults in the room,” she said, “one of the first things they bring up is the need for more mental health services in our schools.”
In the past few years, mental health concerns for students have become increasingly dire. In 2017 and 2019, 38 percent of Pennsylvania students surveyed in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 said they felt sad or depressed most days over the past year. In 2021, the number rose to 40 percent.
According to data from the Department of Human Services, Pennsylvania in 2021 saw a surge in the number of people seeking care from youth crisis hotlines, mobile crisis response teams, and walk-in crisis centers compared to the year before.
Compared to the two previous survey years, more children seriously considered or planned suicide in 2021, and reported self-harm also increased. Data from these surveys was collected by state agencies from 1,908 eligible schools.
John Callahan, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, says school districts can address mental health needs in their students by increasing the number of school counselors and school psychologists or contracting out services to provide student support, both of which can be aided by the influx of new funds.
“We know this is going to be an ongoing collective effort,” says Monica Stefanik, children’s services director for Bucks County. “We’re continuing to see an increase and want to pull together as a community to support youth on many levels. That will help to improve mental health over time if we’re all working together.”
Some professionals noted how underfunding has put a strain on the system, like administrator of the Bucks County Behavioral Health/Development Programs Donna Duffy-Bell. According to her, the mobile crisis unit in Bucks County was “gutted over the course of the pandemic” and operating at significantly lower capacity, which stretched wait times, a major inconvenience for the schools who work in tandem with the county’s behavioral health services.
To address security concerns in the wake of escalating mass shootings, $100 million will go to the state’s Safety and Security Fund, which was established in 2018 after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Funds have frequently been used to add cameras, safe entrances, and personnel to school buildings.
Lawmakers have also set aside $42.6 million for county mental health offices providing at-home and community based behavioral health services and another $100 million in federal relief funding to support adult behavioral health care.