The House passed a bill on Thursday that seeks to address mental health concerns among students, families and educators aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which lawmakers say had a “severe impact” on those three groups.
The bill, titled the Mental Health Matters Act, passed in a largely party-line 220-205 vote. One Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), joined all Democrats present in supporting it.
The legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, would provide grants to establish a pipeline for school-based mental health service professionals. Additionally, it would grow the number of mental health experts at elementary and secondary schools that are based in high-need locations.
The measure would direct the Department of Education to allocate those grants.
The Department of Education would also be ordered to administer grants to state educational agencies to go towards recruiting and maintaining school-based mental health service providers at public elementary and secondary schools that are considered high need.
Passage of the bill comes roughly two-and-a-half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made mental health conditions more widespread.
The World Health Organization revealed in March that, in the first year of the pandemic, the prevalence of anxiety and depression around the globe grew by roughly 25 percent.
The 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which was released in August, revealed that about 1.5 million children in the U.S. experienced depression or anxiety throughout the first year of the pandemic.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the bill, said his legislation is needed to address the ripple effect student that mental health concerns are having on schools and educators.
“Educators have been forced to play an outsized role in supporting and responding to students’ mental health needs, leading to increased depression and trauma among educators, their students, and the families and the community. However, our schools do not have the specialized staff necessary to respond to the increased prevalence and complexity of students’ mental health needs,” he said.
“Simply put, the Mental Health Matters Act delivers the resources students, educators, and families need to improve their well-being,” DeSaulnier added.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said the “country would be better off without” the legislation on the floor.
She specifically took issue with the provision that allows the Labor Department secretary to levy civil monetary penalties on sponsors of plans and administrators of group health plans if they do not fulfill parity requirements regarding mental health.
“Providing [the Department of Labor] with the authority to level civil monetary penalties against plans and increase their risk of litigation will only force plans to drop mental health coverage,” Foxx argued.
“This money would be better spent on compliance assistance instead of targeting employers based on ambiguous standards,” she added.
The legislation also mandates that disability accommodations be available to incoming students at higher education institutions if they have documents outlining their disability, and it establishes a grant program to bolster access for students to evidence-based trauma support and mental health services through projects that connect schools and local education agencies with trauma-informed assistance and mental health systems.