WA expected to get funding for mental health, school safety with passage of gun bill


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The bipartisan bill President Joe Biden signed Saturday offers some of the most sweeping changes to the nation’s gun laws in recent memory — and new financial backing for mental health supports and school safety. 

Washington’s health and school officials are waiting on the particulars. It’s unclear precisely how the law, which passed the Senate Thursday and the House on Friday, will affect access to mental health care and school supports.

But here are four ways the measure could affect Washington state:

Community-based mental health care: The law acknowledges the importance of accessing mental health care where you live — versus through a mental health institution or other inpatient setting — and adds hundreds of millions of dollars to train community-based providers and strengthen local mental health agencies.

About $120 million nationally will help train first responders working with someone experiencing a mental health crisis. An additional $250 million would help states expand comprehensive mental health services. It’s unknown how much each state will qualify for. 

Crisis resources: The legislation sets aside about $150 million to support the new national 988 suicide prevention and crisis phone line, which is expected to roll out in July. Instead of calling 911, callers seeking crisis services, substance use treatment or a kind listener can dial 988 to get connected to mental health resources. 

It’s unclear how much federal money would flow to Washington, which has already approved a tax on phone and internet lines to partially pay for the hotline. But like most states, Washington may struggle to get the service off the ground: The state is facing a serious shortage of mental health workers and its patchwork of community-based services have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The federal influx, if split evenly across the states, would only allocate $3 million to each — a drop in the bucket compared to the deep financial strain many agencies are experiencing.

Children’s mental health: About $80 million in federal grants is expected to support telehealth for pediatricians. 

There’s a severe shortage of children’s mental health providers, and getting access to a specialist can be tough, especially for families who live in rural communities. 

The funding would give pediatricians quick access to the expertise of pediatric mental health specialists, who could offer guidance on how to treat or monitor children with mental health concerns.

The measure is also expected to add $60 million over five years to train pediatricians in certain mental health practices. It’s unknown how much funding, if any, Washington would qualify for. 

State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-SeaTac, said the potential funding comes at a critical moment: The state is witnessing increasing rates of suicide attempts, especially among young children and girls, and these youth are showing up to emergency departments in alarming numbers.

Washington could work better, Orwall said, to integrate the behavioral health system with mental health services youth receive in schools. 

“Sometimes we put in silos, money to schools, money to behavioral health,” she said. “But what we really need is to be strengthening the partnerships between those entities.”

School-based services: Part of the legislation earmarks money for enhanced mental health support specifically in schools, setting aside $1 billion to build up mental health staffing. 

The funding would flow through existing grant programs aimed at increasing the number of providers and qualified staff, like counselors, psychologists and social workers.

It comes as experts see more concerning mental health symptoms among youth, including depression, disordered eating and loneliness. Students in Washington are calling for additional school-based mental health professionals. 

The bill directs federal agencies to coordinate support for the expansion of school-based mental health services using Medicaid. 

The legislation also includes $300 million for grants under the STOP School Violence Act, to aid schools’ violence prevention efforts. The funding will help schools offer training to staff and students, and implement best practices for improving school safety. Congress established the federal grant program after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The legislation also prohibits the use of federal dollars to train or equip school staff with guns. 


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