WA Senate bill to establish network for student mental, behavioral health

56% of tenth graders in Washington reported signs of depression or anxiety in the most recent statewide Health Youth Survey.

Only half of those teens said they have a trusted adult to turn to when they’re feeling sad or helpless. 

Schools across Washington are struggling to hire psychologists, counselors and social workers to cope with kids’ mental health needs. Seattle Public Schools, for instance, is more than 100 counselors short. Senate Bill 6216 is making its way through legislation that could provide students with improved access to services.

"We’re all in this for kids," said state superintendent Chris Reykdal. "The heaviness of the world is sitting on them differently."

Reykdal proposed the bill, and State Senator T’Wina Nobles sponsored it. He explained the goal is to establish a statewide network for student mental and behavioral health.

"Think of it as regional mental health, so that each district doesn’t have to do it by themselves," said Reykdal. "You’re a small district, maybe, who doesn’t have the ability to afford your own licensed mental health therapist or counselor. So, there’s a network there in your region that you can tap into. Maybe there’s a team that the local Educational Service District that can be deployed, or they might put somebody in your school so that there’s always a contact."

The state superintendent explained there are currently nine Educational Service Districts (ESDs) throughout Washington already working on student mental health. However, not all nine have the same level of expertise and knowledge. With SB 6216, Reykdal said it will create a consistent model so that all school districts and students have access to equal care.

"And then grants for districts. If they have none of this, they’ve got to build that capacity. So, what does it mean to train your educators on identifying students who are in distress and need help?" said Reykdal. "Our schools are asked to do a lot more than they used to do. I think that’s okay, as long as we’re well-resourced, and this bill tries to do that."

When it comes to the fragile state of mental health in young people across Washington, students spoke up during a public hearing on Jan. 24, at the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education. 

"We’re not just students, athletes, sons, and daughters. We’re therapists, doctors and crisis hotline operators for our siblings and best friends, not because we want to, but because there’s an absence of accessible professional help in our schools," said Mahi Malladi, a high school student in Redmond and member of the Washington Youth Alliance. "Education cannot be a priority when our lives are on the line."

During their testimony, students called for more in-school resources to help them deal with emotions like depression, anxiety, substance use, or even thoughts of suicide.

"Too often, people reach out for help, only to find out there’s a three-month wait at their school health center because there’s only one therapist for every 1,200 students," said Chetan Soi, member of the Washington Youth Alliance.

SB 6216 passed in the Early Learning & K-12 Education committee on Jan. 31. The bill will be reviewed by the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee. If it’s approved this legislative session, Reykdal said the mental and behavioral health plan will start this summer.