Lawmakers and various stakeholders held a press conference at the Legislative Office Building today to kick off the first meeting of the Transforming Children’s Behavioral Health Policy and Planning Committee (TCB), created by legislation in 2022, to evaluate Connecticut’s mental health system for children and offer reforms.

The committee will be chaired by Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, and Claudio Gualtieri of the Office of Policy and Management and was formed under House Bill 5001, a massive bill passed in 2022 to focus on children’s mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed a long-standing lack of mental health services and beds in Connecticut.

“The pandemic may be over, but the children’s mental health crisis is not,” Exum said. “I’ve seen the young children in the emergency department, in the hallways, because there was not a place to send them, not the appropriate plan for placement.”

Exum added that school administrators say more focus is needed on children’s mental health to ensure they get the help they need to fully engage in learning and that parents are often meant with long wait times when trying to find help for their children when facing mental health and substance abuse crises.

“I know what it is to take your child out of the state of Connecticut because the services they need are just not available in the state,” Exum said. “I have seen those children and I know those parents.”

The committee is tasked with reforming and building a comprehensive mental health system for children in Connecticut. Children’s mental health was a focus of the 2022 legislative session, resulting in multiple bills being passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. 

“This isn’t a temporary problem that can be fixed with temporary funding,” Exum said. “To create lasting change and to be transformational, to give our kids and families what they need and deserve requires support and collaboration of all these stakeholder groups.”

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said that often bills are passed but there is a lack of follow-through to ensure the legislation meets its goals. 

“This finalization of this policy board here I think is exactly what we need,” Nuccio said. “We are not just going to throw money at this, we’re going to make sure that every dollar that is committed to this is doing exactly what we needed it to do and if we’re wrong, if we picked the wrong thing, we’re not going to fund it anymore and we’re going to find the right thing.”

Nuccio said that since passage of HB 5001, in the last year, Connecticut has not added a single mental health resource where it was needed. “In the last year, we have not added a single mental health resource where we needed it,” Nuccio said. “The resources are still not there and that’s a bigger issue because we need to find a way to get these professionals to come and move to Connecticut.”

Connecticut implemented a compact allowing licensed mental health professionals from other states to work in Connecticut under their existing license, but Nuccio said this is often limited to telehealth services rather than professionals and organizations physically being in the state.

“The compacts are good because they allow us to use providers in other states, a lot of that is through telehealth and such,” Nuccio said. “Actually, having providers here on the ground taking new clients is more of a primary goal of mine.”

However, Sen. Saud Anwar, D-Windsor, said the claim Connecticut hasn’t added mental health resources is not entirely accurate because Senate Bill 2 expanded Medicaid coverage to associate licensed marital and family therapists working under the supervision of an independent clinician. 

“A blanket statement saying not a single resource has been added in the entire state is not accurate, because the moment the licensing was changed, 400 more people were providing care immediately,” Anwar said.

Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families Vanessa Dorantes highlighted Connecticut’s expansion of mobile mental health services across the state 24/7, new urgent care centers opening in four cities across the state and expanding pediatricians’ ability to have real-time telehealth consultations with psychiatrists.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, said some hospitals came to the state asking to convert some of their space to beds for youth experiencing mental health crises. “We provided certain waivers, as the Department of Public Health, to be able to open those beds and be able to transform them in certain ways.”

“Given the vast need, it may still not be enough, but there have been certain interventions like that, that at least we’ve done our side,” Juthani said.

According to CT Insider, although children’s mental health was a big focus of the 2022 legislative session, funding constraints this past session combined with inflation and expiring federal COVID funds has left nonprofit mental health organizations struggling to implement needed programs.

“Connecticut rates pretty high compared to other states for the number of providers they have for behavioral health, but, as we’re seeing, the demand is significantly higher than the supply,” Nuccio said.

The TCB committee will also work with the support of Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven and the University of Connecticut’s Innovation Institute. The committee is also staffed by a number of mental health professionals and those overseeing children’s mental health initiatives.

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Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels,...

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