Tester Pushes Bill to Increase Access to Mental Health Providers in Rural Montana Schools

Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act would address rural and national shortage of mental health professionals in schools

As part of his ongoing effort to help Montanans improve access to mental health services, U.S. Senator Jon Tester reintroduced his Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act to get more mental health professionals into schools across the state.

Originally introduced by Senator Tester in 2019, the bill creates a five-year grant program for partnerships between graduate institutions and local school districts, or graduate institutions and state education agencies, to build pipelines for channeling school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors into high-need districts.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical that our students have access to mental health services in their schools,” said Tester. “Teachers and students across Montana-particularly in rural areas-rely on these services as often the only mental health counseling available, and we’ve got to ensure they can access them. This bill will do just that by incentivizing mental health professionals to work, and stay, in our high-need school districts.”

Tester’s legislation comes amid a severe mental health crisis for young people across the nation. In 2017, suicide death rates among teens and young adults reached their highest levels in nearly two decades, marked by a 30 percent increase nationally from 2000 to 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a surge in mental health needs among children in light of anxiety relating to the public health crisis and separation from peers during school closures.

Currently, schools in Montana face a severe shortage of mental health care professionals. The recommended ratios for professionals to students are as follows:

  • Counselors – 1:250
  • Psychologists – 1:500

Montana’s current ratio for counselors to students is 1:319, and the ratio for psychologists is 1:1,200. In rural areas, these student-to-provider ratios are often more stark. While teachers are trained to help students academically, they are not trained to address the root causes of mental health issues, and often cite a lack of support for students with behavioral and mental health issues as a key inhibitor of student success. Additionally, virtual learning and a lack of mental health resources during the pandemic has created even more challenges for students as they return to in person learning.

Tester’s Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act directly addresses these shortages, and has received support from the National Association of School Psychologists, American Psychological Association, School Social Work Association of America, American School Counselor Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness.