WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s budget proposal will include $235 million in funding for new mental health programs focused on initiatives to help schools detect early warning signs and train thousands of new mental health professionals, an administration official said.
The proposed new commitments come after the Newtown, Conn., shootings increased calls for improving mental health services in addition to stricter gun controls..
The budget, which is to be released Wednesday, is the first to include these new programs, which were initially outlined in a January report on administration strategies to reduce gun violence.
“We have to tell Congress it’s time to strengthen school safety and help people struggling with mental health problems get the treatment they need before it’s too late,” Obama said in a speech on gun violence Monday night at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Even as congressional Republicans continue with their demands to shrink the federal budget, the Obama administration believes that now is the right time to pursue these new spending commitments.
“We’ve never seen this kind of sustained interest before,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss funding that has not been publicly announced. “The administration is very united about addressing this issue.”
Leading mental health advocates said that the new funds would be a step in the right direction, but that it is still a relatively small investment after states cut mental health services during the recession.
“It’s a positive step forward but, to put it in perspective, over the last three years states have cut mental health services by $4.35 billion,” said Bob Corolla, spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “In terms of strengthening the system, I’d say it’s a moderate investment.”
The new budget plan will propose $130 million for programs that train teachers and other adults to help recognize the early signs of mental illness in students. That includes $55 million for a new program called Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), which will give states and local school districts grants to administer such programs, while also collecting data on how well they work.
Another $50 million would go toward training master’s-level mental health specialists, such as psychologists, nurses and counselors, who work in schools. The idea is to expand the mental health workforce to prepare for the demands of millions of Americans who will gain health insurance coverage next year under the Affordable Care Act.
“We can’t take 12 years training doctors and post-docs to meet the need in 2014,” the administration official said. “We’re taking a very promising and practical approach.”
A separate, $25 million investment would be made to assist schools where violence is pervasive. Grants to schools that qualify would be used to address the trauma experienced by children and test violence prevention strategies.
Congress still needs to approve these additional spending commitments before any funds would be available to state and local governments.
Steven Horen, chief executive of the psychiatric care company Koved Care, agreed with other advocates that “$235 million to cover the entire United States is not a lot of money.”
But he added: “Sometimes you need to take small steps to get the ball rolling. You can’t start by throwing billions of dollars at this, or it would be wasted. You’re better off starting things this way.”