Delaware Governor John Carney has signed in to law three pieces of legislation meant to improve mental health resources in Delaware.

“My highest priority is making sure we give students everything they need to be successful,” said Governor Carney. “This package of legislation strengthens our mental and behavioral health services so that we can identify, support, and help students in and out of the classroom. I want to thank Speaker Longhurst and the members of the Delaware General Assembly for their advocacy and hard work on behalf of our students.”

“Today we took another critical step forward, not just in policy, but in our commitment to creating a future where every Delawarean has access to the mental health care and resources they need,” said House Speaker Valerie Longhurst. “The bills Governor Carney signed today will help to deliver the compassionate, comprehensive mental health support residents need and deserve, but we’re not stopping here. Just as we have for the last several years, we’re going to continue to address the mental health crisis in our state with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.”

Legislators say the first bill, House Bill 3, helps students by allowing them excused absences for mental or behavior health reasons. As a part of this bill, any student who needs more than two of these absences be referred to a school-based mental or behavioral health specialist.

The second is House Bill 4, which is also aimed at students. Legislators say that it makes sure students have access to behavior health support in school after a school-connected traumatic event, which is defined as the death of any student, educator, administrator, or other building employee, or any other traumatic event that effects a significant portion of the students at the school.

“During my 25-year tenure as a public school teacher, I saw firsthand how mental health played a crucial role in a student’s ability to meaningfully learn and develop,” said Sen. Laura Sturgeon, chair of the Senate Education Committee and Senate prime sponsor of HB 3 and HB 4.

“With House Bill 3 and House Bill 4, we are ensuring Delaware’s youngest minds have access to the mental and behavioral support they need to thrive both in and outside of the classroom.”

As a part of House Bill 4, officials say the Delaware Department of Education will develop guidance, best practices, and written resources for school dealing with school-connected traumatic events. They say the department will also be responsible for covering the costs of grief counseling offered to students for up to 45 days after the event, with an option to renew for another 45 days.

“We’re grateful to Speaker Longhurst for, once again, taking important steps to support youth mental health in Delaware,” said Angela Kimball, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Inseparable. “This year’s legislation showcases the Speaker’s leadership and dedication to youth mental health, which not only makes Delaware a better place to grow up but also is putting Delaware on the map as a national leader in mental health.”

Both bills are part of a larger package called “the 2023 Delaware Behavioral Health Package.” They say the measures are part of a holistic approach to improving the way mental health care is given to children in Delaware.

The third house bill, 160 (S), is about creating a way to fund the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The 988 National Suicide Designation Act was passed by Congress in 2020, but legislators say states were independently responsible for setting the lifeline up. 988 would be the universal three-digit calling code for it, like how 911 is used for public safety emergencies.

The bill generates income to fund the lifeline through a 60-cent monthly surcharge on all phones and landlines, as well as a 60-cent fee on prepaid services. Legislators say these fees mirror fees already collected to support 911.

The bill has the money go to the Behavior Health Crisis Intervention Services Fund, which would fund the lifeline and a plan for a variety of services meant to help Delawareans experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

House Bill 160 (S) also creates a 20-member board, says legislators, that will develop a comprehensive statewide crisis intervention services plan and recommend to the governor and general assembly how to use the money from the surcharge. They say the board will be made up of state health officials, behavioral health experts, medical professionals, law enforcement and others.

“The creation of the 988 hotline wasn’t just a symbolic gesture — this has been a critical tool to help people get the same level of urgent and individualized care that they would if they were to call 911,” said Sen. Poore. “I’m proud to work alongside Speaker Longhurst to make the 988 hotline a more sustainable resource here in Delaware. We must continue to invest in our state’s mental health infrastructure, and I thank Governor Carney for signing this next important step into law.”

Credit WRDE | Benjamin Rothstein