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Tennessee Governor Revives A Mental Health Idea Meant To Help Kids Through COVID

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Bill Lee, via Facebook
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  The pandemic has increased the emotional needs of K-12 students. That’s why Tennessee’s governor says he’s bringing back a proposal to establish a mental health trust fund.

“While my administration proposed these critical mental health supports last year, we now have the available funding and a greater need than ever before to ensure our students have access to mental health resources,” Gov. Bill Lee says in a statement.

Public health officials don’t even know the extent of the mental health needs during the pandemic. School counselors have had trouble reaching students virtually. But anecdotal evidence suggests the needs are great.

The Nashville-based educational software company GoNoodle has been overwhelmed with requests for more videos on mindfulness, breathing and yoga amid school shutdowns.

“That childhood joy that we all hope for them to have is kind of drained away in the face of all of this stress,” says chief marketing officer Julie Crabill.

And the anxiety and depression is turning serious more often. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a nationwide uptick in emergency room visits for kids facing mental health challenges.

In Tennessee, roughly 300,000 children each year have some sort of mental health diagnosis. And 60% of them, according to state officials, receive services through schools.

The proposed mental health trust fund would support therapists and counselors in schools. The money would also fund programs that address suicide prevention and bullying, as well as an early intervention program focused on wellness called Project Basic.

Lee abandoned the $250 million idea last year when the pandemic threatened the state’s finances. But tax collections have been much stronger than expected, leading to a $1.3 billion surplus.

It’s unclear how the specifics of the trust fund would work, like how much could be spent from the fund each year. The general plan is to allow the state treasurer to invest the $250 million and only use the earnings, which would likely be less than $25 million a year.

The program still needs the legislature’s approval, but it has the support from key Republican leaders. The debate will likely be less about whether to do it, and more about how much to spend and how quickly.

“When I see dollars well invested in behavioral health care, I know what the payoff is,” says Bob Vero, regional CEO of Centerstone, which provides mental health services in 350 Middle Tennessee schools. “I am all for making wise investments that have a long-term impact.”

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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