Friday, August 15, 2008

Needed in Every State

Months after teen's suicide, 'Yolanda's Law' advances

She sought better mental health care for Mass. children

By Kay Lazar Globe Staff / August 15, 2008
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Nicknamed "Yolanda's Law" after a Plymouth teenager who eloquently testified before legislators about her struggles with bipolar disorder, a bill aimed at improving mental health care for an estimated 100,000 Massachusetts children now awaits Governor Deval Patrick's signature.

State senators yesterday gave final approval to the sweeping measure, which directs an array of changes in a system described by advocates as seriously fractured.

The bill requires pediatricians to routinely screen children for behavioral health problems, with parental consent, and for health insurance companies to cover those screenings. It creates a system for school personnel to receive consultation and guidance to recognize and better understand children's mental health needs. And it attacks the "stuck kids" issue by setting up a process to more quickly move children stuck in hospitals because of bureaucratic red tape into more appropriate community-based settings.

"This is bittersweet," said Mary Ann Tufts, the mother of Yolanda Torres, for whom the bill is named. The 16-year-old committed suicide in January, eight months after testifying on Beacon Hill in support of the legislation. She battled some of the problems the measure aims to fix.

"She was truly powerful in being the visual face of what mental illness looks like. It doesn't have two heads or warts on its face or drool down its mouth. It looks like a typical child," Tufts said in a telephone interview. "Could this bill have changed the outcome for [Yolanda], no one knows. But I think it will impact other children very positively."

In Massachusetts, about 140,000 children age 17 or younger require mental health services, but 100,000 of those children do not get them, according to health advocates. Half of students with a mental illness drop out of school, and of those who commit suicide, 90 percent had a diagnosable and treatable illness, according to advocates.

The substantial unmet need, combined with Torres's powerful testimony and a strong coalition of families and organizations, helped push the bill through Beacon Hill in one legislative session, a remarkable feat given its far-reaching effects, said Marylou Sudders, who is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a former state mental health commissioner.

"We have been able to work with the Legislature on an issue that highlights the crisis in mental health and enact a bill to start to address this," Sudders said.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee estimated the changes called for in the law would cost the state about $5.4 million annually. Patrick now has 10 days to sign the bill.

"The governor has been generally supportive of this important legislation, but we have not seen the final version and the governor will need to review it," said a spokeswoman for Patrick, Cyndi Roy.

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