On April 11, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) passed the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act of 2013 (S. 689). This bill was a first step by Congress to help address the issue of mental illness in our country, in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While it was adopted in the Senate by a vote of 95 to 2, it is currently being held up by the larger debate over gun control.
If the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act were to become law, it would provide new opportunities for school-based occupational therapy practitioners to play a role in mental health promotion, early identification of mental illness, and supporting students with mental illness. The bill builds on the last reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) which sought to reduce the number of children who were identified for special education by promoting school-wide initiatives for improving academic and behavioral outcomes for students. The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act would allow Title 1 funds to be used for early intervening services (EIS) and positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS). Inclusion of these programs into general education laws has been a core part of AOTA’s “Principles for Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind”.
Occupational Therapy can play an important role in school-wide initiatives designed to meet the needs of all children, regardless of their health or disability status. Such programs including EIS, PBIS, and Response to Intervention (RTI) can greatly increase students’ ability to participate in the classroom and across school settings. These interventions can be used to assist students with mental and behavioral health problems, not just those with learning difficulties.
When discussion first began on possible school-based mental health legislation, some of the suggested legislative language sought to list the school personnel that would be involved in these programs, traditionally limited to school counselors, psychologists and social workers. AOTA and our coalition partners successfully worked to ensure that the final language was inclusive of all school instructional support personnel (including occupational therapists).
We will continue to follow this and other bills that relate to mental health or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as they move through the legislative process, and we will continue to advocate for the interests of school-based occupational therapy practitioners and occupational therapy’s role in mental health. The Senate is scheduled to start consideration of an ESEA reauthorization bill by early summer.
The following links provide more detailed information on Early Intervening Services, Positive Behavioral Supports and Response to Intervention: