Gov. Abbott signs bill requiring mental health curriculum in public schools

Austin
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(Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 18, an omnibus bill meant to get more mental health services to students in Texas public schools. 

Amarillo Republican Representative Four Price and Austin Democratic Senator Kirk Watson shepherded the bill through the legislature. It would require school districts to offer mental health and suicide prevention curricula if they do the same with physical health. 

The curricula and training will include signs of mental health conditions and substance abuse, strategies for maintaining student to student positive relations, conflict resolution, and information about how grief and trauma affect student learning. 

School districts will be partnering with local mental health authorities for specific content. 

Advocates hope these curricula and training will help identify and respond to mental health issues and bullying before they become larger problems. 

HB 18 now allows school districts to employ or contract with one or more non-physician mental health professionals: a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, counselor, registered nurse with a masters degree in psychiatric nursing, or a social worker.

It also requires online training in mental health first aid to be public and encouraged in schools. 

Next school year, training videos will be offered in public schools around the state as part of new coursework, teaching students what to look for in their classmates and how to get them help. The focus is on suicide prevention and grief counseling.

“Often times we wait until it reaches a crisis point or other negative outcomes arise before we really do anything about it. And that needs to change. It’s a whole paradigm shift. It’s a philosophy change,” said Greg Hansch, from the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Last year’s school shooting at Santa Fe sparked this effort at the Texas capitol. Hansch said advocates have pushed for similar measures for years; but it took Governor Abbott including items in his school safety action plan and calling mental health a legislative emergency item, to get it into law.

Next school year, schools will partner with local mental health providers to offer services in every school. 

“That word offered is critical there. It doesn’t mean that every single student in public school is going to receive education around mental health. It means they’ll have the opportunity to receive that through – like an elective,” said Hansch.

Per the new law: schools will partner with their local mental health district. Williamson County will partner with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services. Hays County will partner with Hill Country Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities Centers.

The Texas Council of Community Centers (a coalition of local mental health authorities) are expected to hire additional staff to implement the bill. 

There will be $2.3 million in general revenue funds used as grants to support non-physician mental health professionals.

Staff for the Texas Education Agency suggests there could be possible costs to local school districts for coordinating school health programs and yearly training. 

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