New Mass. law aids children with mental illness
BOSTON—When Mary Ann Tufts trekked to the Massachusetts Statehouse in May 2007 to testify in favor a children's mental health bill, her daughter Yolanda tagged along for a "girls' day away."
Yolanda, who'd battled anxiety and bipolar disorder for years, hadn't planned on speaking at the hearing, but at the last minute decided to tell lawmakers about her personal struggles -- putting a young face on the issue.
Eight months later, Yolanda Torres, then 16, committed suicide.
On Thursday, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the children's mental health bill -- dubbed "Yolanda's Bill" by advocates -- saying it strengthened the state's commitment to children living with mental illness.
Yolanda's mother expressed mixed emotions at the news.
"It's extremely bittersweet. I'm thrilled that it passed and I hope and believe that my daughter had something to do with it," Tufts said. "It makes her passing stand for something and that gives us some solace."
Patrick said the new law will make it easier for the state to identify and treat mental illness in children.
The law helps train teachers, guidance counselors and nurses to better identify mental health needs in students. Under the law, the Department of Early Education and Care will provide behavioral health consultation services in early education and care programs to reach children with mental illness earlier.
The new law also encourages behavioral health screening for children during visits to their doctors.
The bill also ensures greater cooperation between agencies by creating a children's behavioral health research and evaluation council, and service teams to collaborate on cases for children who may need services from multiple state agencies.
"Massachusetts has been a leader in expanding health insurance for all of its citizens and now we are focused on meeting the needs of every child," Patrick said in a written statement.
The need for services is acute, according to advocates.
A report by Children's Hospital Boston and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, found that of the more than 140,000 young people under age 18 who need mental health services each year, more than 100,000 do not receive them.
Senate President Therese Murray, who lives in the same town as Mary Ann Tufts, said the goal of the bill was to help reach out to other teens suffering from mental illness.
"There are too many children in the Commonwealth who go undiagnosed or untreated for mental illness," Murray said. "This new law will help seal the cracks in our system."
Tufts said that while she would give anything to have her daughter back, she also knows that Yolanda would be pleased to have her name associated with a bill designed to help other children and teenagers facing similar struggles.
"She wanted to help other children like herself," Tufts said. "She was a very powerful young woman."