As students head back to class for a new school year in Texas, they will likely notice several changes on campus regarding mental wellness. Following acts of violence and suicide in districts across the state, lawmakers took steps in the last legislative session to focus funding and increase resources to help prevent these problems in the future. This special edition of our political program, State of Texas, highlights some of the major programs going into place and other options state leaders could consider.

Statewide consortium to address child mental health

During emotional discussions after 2018’s deadly Santa Fe High School shooting, many Texas lawmakers realized they had a mental health crisis on their hand and the mass shooting was only a sad symptom. They were caught unprepared for the size and scope of the problem — Texas has a chronic shortage of counselors and mental health professionals.

Lawmakers eventually found a way to provide new and improved mental health services to the sprawling state of Texas, where communities can be geographically and ethnically diverse. They leaned on an infrastructure that already existed, pumping $100 million through the 13 health-related universities, forming the backbone of the Child Mental Healthcare Consortium. Each university will partner with state health agencies and non-profits to provide child psychiatry centers in their specific area. They will have local mental health professionals that school districts could use.

Telemedicine services in rural school districts

The state has also tasked a program based at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock to explore ways to expand its services across Texas.  The TWITR Project – which stands for Telemedicine, Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral – is a team of mental health professionals who step in to help middle and high school students at risk of hurting themselves or others at school. The team meets with students and their parents on campus, screens them and then sets up telemedicine appointments with a psychiatrist so they can talk face-to-face through a computer.

So far, there are 24 mostly rural school districts part of the TWITR Project. It started with ten school districts in the Lubbock area, and recently expanded to five more districts in the Amarillo area. A new contract is also in the works with the Borger Independent School District for the 2019 – 2020 school year.

The program is funded by the Office of Texas Governor Criminal Justice Division Juvenile Justice Grant Program, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and TTUHSC matching funds. In 2018, Texas Tech received a one-year $360,885 grant from the THHSC, matched by a portion of TTUHSC funds, to begin the Amarillo expansion.

Student threat assessments for all districts

But sometimes it can be even more difficult to pinpoint students who need help. So starting this school year, every district in Texas is required to implement a plan to conduct student threat assessments.

A new state law calls for educators, counselors, law enforcement, mental health experts and other stakeholders to form a committee that conducts student threat assessments. Once the risk level is determined, the districts are then required to support the student and potential targets with additional services. It will be up to the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University to audit districts and determine which are noncompliant.

Mental health consultants in California pre-schools

But Texas leaders are still looking at other options to address mental wellness in schools. One possibility is working on the West Coast. In 2018, California lawmakers approved a bill to allow preschools to bring on mental health consultants to work directly with teachers to better respond to challenging students. The move came after the state largely did away with expulsion for preschoolers.

If a California preschool provides mental health consultation services, the state will increase the amount of annual funding it receives per child by 5 percent. A handful of other states have similar system-wide programs, but Texas is not one of them.