April 10, 2013 -- President Obama is asking for $235 million as part of his new budget proposal to fund mental health initiatives. Of the funds, $130 million will be used to train teachers and others to identify signs of mental illness in students and provide them with access to treatment.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a blog on her agency's website Tuesday that the funds include $205 million to help identify mental health problems, improve access to mental health services and support safer school environments. The plan would affect at least 8,000 schools according to Sebelius. Another $30 million will go toward public health research on gun violence.
"We cannot ignore the fact that 60 percent of people with mental health conditions and nearly 90 percent of people with substance use disorders don't receive the care they need," Sebelius said in the post.
According to a January report the Obama administration planned to spend $50 million to fund Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), which would train teachers to identify signs of mental illness or provide "Mental Health First Aid" and ensure that students have access to mental health care. According to the report, Project AWARE would reach 750,000 young people.
Another $50 million would go to training 5,000 people to become mental health experts at the master's level to help alleviate the shortage of mental health professionals. The funds would also support state-based strategies aimed at helping those between the ages of 16-25 get access to and navigate behavioral treatment programs.
Mental health experts say it is vital to treat mental illnesses as early as possible. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness can be diagnosed by age 14 and approximately three-quarters of these cases are diagnosed by age 24.
Dr. Paramjit Joshi, chair of Behavioral Health, Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C., says there is on average eight years between a person showing signs of mental illness and getting diagnosed with a disease. She says if children and teens are diagnosed early, they are less likely to drop out of school or turn to substance abuse.
"Like other illnesses if you can catch this early, the benefits are monumental," said Joshi. "Children spend the majority of their day in the school setting. I think it will be wonderful for teachers to be better prepared and be aware what are signs and symptoms of these conditions early and refer them for appropriate services."
By centering the initiative in schools throughout the country, Joshi says it could also help make mental illness a less taboo topic.
"I think I also there's a lot of stigma attached to mental illness, if there is service provided in that school it puts a dent in that stigma," said Joshi. "It would be great if mental health is incorporated into overall health of the child."
Mel Riddile, associate director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says in order for these initiatives to work they need to be more than just short training sessions.
Riddile says it's important schools have relationships with parents and the local mental health care system so that teachers and school officials feel there is someone that can help them if they have concerns about a student.
"When people have nobody to talk to, they won't ask the question if they don't think they're going to get [help.]," said Riddile. "It's a matter of creating a network, where when issues come up they can ask a question."