Mental health agency focuses on educating school districts

Local, state federal officials focus on mental-health

Though gun control and school threats have grabbed the most headlines in the weeks since the Newtown Ct. elementary school massacre, President Obama and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also have addressed the role mental health plays in making schools safer.

By Ed Runyan


Though gun control and school threats have grabbed the most headlines in the weeks since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, President Barack Obama and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also have addressed the role mental health plays in making schools safer.

Obama announced he would pursue full implementation of a plan calling for insurance plans to cover mental health problems at the same level as physical health problems, while Kasich has authorized $5 million for mental health care for children and families in Ohio.

April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, meanwhile, says her agency is taking steps to ensure that county school personnel don’t allow anything to block them from speaking up if they spot potential concerns among students.

The agency also is taking inventory of each school district in the county to ensure that each school is served by a mental health agency. Caraway said the inventory should be complete by Thursday, when she meets with the guidance counselors from the schools.

Caraway said she also provided the Educational Service Center with a Jan. 15 memo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that she hopes will clarify the ability of school employees, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others, to call attention to possible mental health issues among students.

She believes the clarification should be given to all school counselors. Some have expressed concern about reporting on the mental health of students because of the privacy protections afforded under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

“HIPPA is sometimes cited as a reason why counselors don’t take steps to address concerns,” Caraway said.

But the memo says if a counselor “believes in good faith” that the person poses a danger to himself or other people, HIPPA “allows the provider, consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, to alert those persons whom the provider believes are reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat.”

“We don’t want the health care provider to fear that they’ll lose their license” for reporting concerns, Caraway said.

Toni Notaro, administrative director for the Mahoning County Mental Health Board, says she agrees with Obama’s desire to see private health care coverage provide equal services for mental health services as it does for physical ailments.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-13th, issued a news release after the Obama administration announced its plans to pursue full implementation of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.

Ryan said the president “is making clear that those who suffer from untreated mental illness will have access to the treatment they deserve. The American people overwhelmingly believe that now is the time to make sure that those suffering from these diseases no longer fall through the cracks of society.”

Current private insurance typically provides for different lengths of stay in medical facilities and charges out-of-pocket costs for mental health or drug and alcohol treatment different from what it charges for physical health treatments, Notaro said.

At the state level, Kasich recently announced he would make available $5 million to help children and families dealing with mental health issues.

Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said the state Legislature also should act in the coming weeks to expand eligibility of the state’s Medicaid program to increase the number of Ohioans who quality for the program.

Ohioans currently are eligible if their income is at 100 percent of the poverty level or below, but many in the health care field want to see that increased to 138 percent. That change would help many underinsured working poor acquire mental health services, Notaro said.

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