The Biden administration on Monday announced more than $300 million in new mental health funding, via awards and grants, with much of the money coming from the bipartisan anti-gun violence law passed this summer by Congress.
The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), is rolling out the roughly $314 million for health professionals in schools and in emergency departments.
The new funds allocated under annual appropriations as well as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) -- which was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in June -- are intended to help create healthier and safer learning environments for children, with the DOE granting some $280 million in competitive grants to schools to aid mental health staffing, it said Monday.
The DOE said it is dedicating $144 million a year for five years to a grant program for growing the amount of mental health professionals in schools, plus $143 million a year for five years to a grant program for "boosting the mental health profession pipeline" around schools that are most in need.
Notices inviting applications for both grant programs will open Monday morning and in the federal register on Tuesday.
Roberto Rodríguez, the education department assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, touted this spending in major terms -- calling the administration's response to mental health "historic."
"We've never seen an effort of this magnitude in relation to the challenge that we have around mental health," Rodríguez told ABC News, adding, "We also have never seen this level of investment from the federal level, more specifically in mental health professionals, so we are making a big bet on supporting, attracting, developing and retaining our school psychologists, social workers [and] counselors to really work in support of our students."
HRSA Administrator Carole Johnson said that the HHS also awarding nearly $27 million for a pediatric mental health access program for emergency department providers -- by training pediatricians to treat "mental health conditions and by [provide] tele-consultation to bring mental health expert support," the government said -- is an important step that will have a "substantial impact."
Johnson told ABC News that pediatric primary health care providers will, with this new money, receive support and training in analyzing mental health conditions. The virtual training sessions with mental health care specialists will help a range of providers, including family medicine physicians, diagnose and treat children before referring them to mental health services, Johnson said.
"[If] that pediatrician is more equipped to identify mental health issues and treat them, then that will make a big difference for that family," Johnson said. "If your school nurse is better able to identify early issues with mental health concerns and get that child referred to the right place, that'll make a big difference for children as well."
The HHS already provides $300,000 per grantee in additional resources to mostly state awardees, as well as tribal organizations and Washington, D.C., and almost $9 million to new grantees through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), officials said.
Johnson emphasized that the government believes the new funding will help reduce the burden on families and extend the "reach" of the mental health workforce in helping those in need.
"Our goal here is that there's no wrong door for getting kids connected to mental health services and pediatricians to be part of that solution," Johnson said. "As part of this project, [one can] call in to what we call a tele-consultation line where the project supports, in every one of our grantees, a tele-consultation service that allows pediatricians to connect directly with mental health experts. That might be psychiatrists or psychologists, social workers and care navigators that really help bring that mental health expertise into the pediatrician's office so that they can help -- in real time -- manage mental health care needs."
Rodríguez, the assistant education secretary, said that the department's mental health funding aims to target school districts in underserved areas.
"We're looking at communities that have high concentrations of poverty, communities where they may disproportionately lack access," Rodríguez said. "That includes not just our urban communities -- that includes our rural communities as well as suburban communities. What we've permitted here is the opportunity for states to apply on behalf of high need Local Education Agencies (LEAs) too, so if school districts don't have a capacity to pull together applications, states can work closely with school districts to do more of a comprehensive response."
The administration's funding commitment comes as various districts have sounded the alarm on their ability to handle mental health issues at their schools this year. The most recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report found mental health professionals are one of the top five most understaffed positions reported in schools.
Amid a widespread educator shortage, Rodríguez said that the Education Department is also focusing on the next generation of mental health professionals by working with higher-education programs. These are partnerships between K-12 and colleges and universities, he said, to train school-based mental health service providers.
The new spending helps President Biden inch closer to his goal of "doubling" the amount of mental health professionals in schools. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in an advisory on protecting youth mental health that students lost access to teachers, counselors and mental health professionals when COVID-19-related measures forced schools to shut down for in-person learning in 2020 and 2021.
The BSCA, which Biden signed in June, will invest an additional $1 billion over the next five years in mental health supports in U.S. schools, according to the White House.