CHRIS HURT: Student-focused mental health support will improve school safety and achievement

Nearly four years after COVID-19 struck, we’ve seen the devastating consequences that pandemic restrictions have had on student test scores and mental health across the country. 

In Tennessee, we’re committed to reversing that decline.

The General Assembly in 2021 partnered with Gov. Bill Lee and his administration to establish the K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund Act.

This important initiative allocated $250 million for mental health services through a systemwide, evidence-based approach. The money will not only help primary and secondary school students academically, but it will increase their safety and success outside of school, too.

Recently, the board of trustees for the K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund approved the allocation of $6 million in both budgets for fiscal years 2023-24 and 2024-25 to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS).

With this, the department announced competitive grant awards that will fund both one-on-one and group mental health interventions, in addition to training for faculty and staff.

Prolonged isolation, too much screen time, social media, and cyberbullying are major contributing factors to the alarming rise in mental health issues among young people.

In 2022, 36% of children in Tennessee between the ages of 6 and 17 were diagnosed with at least one of eleven behavioral health conditions – including anxiety, depression, ADHD, and self-harm – according to the 2023 Vanderbilt Child Health Poll. This is a 7% uptick from 2019.

Another troubling statistic from the U.S. Surgeon General shows that between 2009 and 2019, the number of American high-school students “seriously considering” attempting suicide was up 36%, while those reporting continual feelings of hopelessness and sadness was up 40%.

Beyond that, school lockdowns during COVID-19 limited resources for students and decreased mental health reporting while they were out of the classroom. Mental-health-related emergency room visits among children increased significantly between April-October 2020 when schools closed their doors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As a former high school teacher, these statistics are extremely troubling and cannot be ignored. It is why I sponsored the Mental Health Trust Fund bill in the House, and why countless teachers in the state expressed concern for their students and a need for more resources.

The TDMHSAS grants are necessary to increase mental health awareness in schools across the state – part of the General Assembly’s larger priority to help prevent learning loss in students and increase school safety.

As a result of these grants and other Republican initiatives, the TDMHSAS expects increased academic success, reduced absenteeism and discipline rates, and higher graduation rates for students. These funds will also improve the health and safety of children outside of the classroom.

Protecting and supporting children in the Volunteer State is our most important job. This money helps accomplish that goal. 

In the future, we will direct more resources to prevent violence and bullying, trauma-informed programs, and direct clinical services in schools, in addition to other invaluable mental health training and programs to further the health and safety of students.

Republicans will continue to build on our mission to provide better educational opportunities and safer communities. I’m proud of our efforts, but our work is not over. I look forward to making more progress in the next session to build on these successes.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at