Senator’s legislation would help bring more mental health professionals to rural schools & pediatric hospitals

From Senator Tester’s Office 

U.S. SENATE — As part of his ongoing effort to help Montana’s next generation thrive, U.S. Senator Jon Tester has introduced two new bills to expand support services for children in rural areas by bringing more mental health care professionals to rural schools and pediatric hospitals. 

“In rural America, where poverty, substance misuse, and trauma are far too common, too many kids struggle with mental health issues and never get the treatment they need,” Tester said. “In a rural state like Montana, our schools and hospitals are often the first and only resources for these kids with no other access to mental health care. Giving these institutions a way to hire more mental health care professionals will help us better serve the children who need it most, and help give the next generation the tools they need to be healthy, happy, and successful.”

Tester’s Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act would help build a provider pipeline into Montana’s rural school districts by offering new financial incentives to bring trained psychologists, social workers, and school counselors to under-served schools. 

Similarly, Tester’s Defending Access to Mental Health Care Act would provide incentives like scholarships and student loan forgiveness through the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) to mental health professionals who practice in rural pediatric hospitals. The NHSC provides scholarships and loan forgiveness to doctors, dentists, and some advanced practice nurses who commit to working in areas with a shortage of medical professionals. However, medical professionals that practice at inpatient pediatric mental health facilities—like Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena—are currently not eligible to receive these incentives. Tester’s Defending Access to Mental Health Care Act would expand NHSC eligibility to these pediatric hospitals and mental health care facilities.

Under the Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act, the Department of Education can provide tuition credits and student loan forgiveness to mental health professionals who obtain state certification or credentialing, complete their practicum and work for five consecutive years in an underserved rural school district. 

Tester’s bill has received wide support from experts and organizations across the country:

“We know, based on our recent report, Stress in America: Generation Z, that students today are more likely than previous generations to report and seek help for poor mental health,” said Katherine Brunett McGuire, Chief Advocacy Officer for the American Psychological Association. “This legislation strengthens the workforce pipeline and brings critically needed mental and behavioral health providers to low-income and rural schools, ensuring that the mental, social and emotional health needs of all students, regardless of socioeconomic status are addressed. Meeting these needs are vital to the academic achievement and well-being of students in communities across the country.”

“We are facing an alarming mental health crisis among young people in this country, including rising youth suicide rates,” said Kathleen Minke, Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists. “This growing crisis is exacerbated by shortages of school psychologists and other school-employed mental health professionals who provide critical, and often life-saving, mental and behavioral health services to students. Often we are the only source of mental health care available to children and youth, particularly in underserved areas. We are grateful to Senator Tester for introducing this legislation. It will help school districts to train, recruit, and retain these essential professionals so that all students have access to the comprehensive supports they need to thrive and be successful.”

“With our vast distances between towns, accessing mental health services is very difficult for many Montanan children and families. Further, we have one of highest rates of suicide in the nation,” said Anisa Goforth, Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of Montana. “Thus, I am excited that Senator Tester has introduced legislation that would create a grant program to encourage partnerships between graduate schools and high-needs school districts to create a pipeline for mental health professionals in schools. Our children deserve to be happy and healthy, and these mental and behavioral health services in schools are critical to foster their well-being.”

Tester has been an unwavering advocate for increasing access to health care in rural communities. Earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services incorporatedTester’s legislation into proposed regulations that allow Medicare to financially support residency rotations at Critical Access Hospitals, encouraging more doctors to practice in rural communities. And last month, Tester introduced the NURSE Act to help under-resourced schools hire more nurses to provide students with access to critical health services. Tester also recently pushed to increase access to mental health care in Montana’s public schools following a study that found 25 percent of Great Falls High School students had seriously considered committing suicide.

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