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Gov. Tom Wolf's mental health plan offers hope of more counselors, social workers for schools
Morning Call - 1/4/2020
Jan. 4--The Allentown School District referred about 700 students a year to mental health services about a decade ago. Now it's closer to 3,000 a year.
That's a drastic increase for a district that educates 17,000 students, and shows the need for more resources to help children struggling with mental health, Superintendent Thomas Parker told Gov. Tom Wolf Friday afternoon. And for financially strapped districts like Allentown, Parker said, it's nearly impossible to find the money for the necessary social workers and counselors.
Parker shared the district's struggle in getting children the help they need with Wolf and others attending a round-table discussion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown a day after Wolf announced a statewide effort offering help. Federal and state lawmakers were among those on hand.
Wolf's "Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters," campaign includes developing new state regulations on health insurance coverage, coordinating services for physical and behavioral health, analyzing pay and other factors for those who provide mental health services -- and finding ways to get more social workers into schools.
Wolf has said the effort would attempt to destigmatize the issue and provide people struggling with mental health issues the help they need. Wolf has not said how much if any additional money for mental health services he might be seeking in his coming 2020-21 budget address.
"I want to end the silence because I want to end the stigma," Wolf said at Thursday's launch in Harrisburg. "The second step in this, of course, is ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to the care they need."
In Allentown Friday, Parker said getting more counselors and social workers in the city's schools would be a game changer. "For us that would be absolutely phenomenal," he said.
The need extends far beyond schools, Wolf and others heard Friday from a number sources, including city agencies and organizations.
Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, talked about the need to provide more mental health services for those who leave prison. Brenda DeRenzo, director of student services in the Parkland School District, also talked about the need for more mental health services, and how schools now teach students how to look for signs of depression.
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, said while work has been done to combat the stigma of mental illness, lack of resources and funding are an issue. She said some people have also reached out to her for help, but they lack insurance to be treated.
"That to me is the greatest frustration since I started working in this area," she said.
Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said another obstacle is that jobs in the mental health field don't pay enough for recent college graduates straddled with student loan debt.
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown, who had helped convene the discussion, spoke about his own struggle with depression.
Schlossberg shared his story of contemplating suicide when he was a freshman at Muhlenberg, and how his depression has improved with therapy and medication. He said he is privileged enough that he was able to afford the help he needed.
"As we keep hearing, not everyone is that lucky," he said.
Morning Call reporter Jacqueline Palochko can be reached at 610-820-6613 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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