Michigan candidates share their views on expanding early childhood mental health

In Michigan, and across the U.S., children are struggling with mental, emotional, and behavioral health challenges. Research shows these health conditions, if untreated, lessen opportunities for academic, social, and occupational success and often follow children into adulthood. Approximately one in five youth in Michigan have a diagnosable mental health disorder, resulting in significant impairment for one in 10 youth, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Among our state's children experiencing mental illness, more than a third are not receiving care (these gaps increase with substance use disorders), the council says. 

Parents and child advocates are concerned with how Michigan's electoral candidates are going to prioritize the health and well-being of children. Many showed up at a virtual forum recently to ask House candidates how they plan to advocate for equitable access to mental health support, as well as where they stand on affordable childcare and universal pre-K, public school funding, child tax credits, living wages for child care providers and abortion rights.

Candidates in attendance at the Detroit Champions for Hope event represented eight different House districts, all touching at least a portion of Detroit. Some are seeking re-election, while others are running for the first time. We've listed them here according to the district they hope to represent in Michigan's newly drawn map released earlier this year by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC). 

Though not all candidates stayed for the entire forum, in attendance was Rep. Tyrone Carter D- (District 1), Rep. Regina Weiss, D- (District 6), Charles Villerot, R- (District 6), Mike McFall, D- (District 8), Rob Noble, R- (District 8), Natalie Price D- (District 5), Rep. Abraham Aiyash D- (District 9), and Michele Lundgren R- (District 9). 

Abigail Smathers, a graduate student of Wayne State University's School of Social Work, told candidates that through working in early childhood and family services, and specializing in infant and mental health, she and her colleagues have seen an alarming increase across Michigan of behavioral and emotional issues in infants, toddlers, and children.

"Research shows that mental health consultations offer a really good solution for children in day care," she says. "In our state, these are only really available in 18 counties [there are 83 counties in Michigan], so parents, and child care teachers don't have equitable access to this crucial support."

Question: Will you prioritize expanding Michigan's Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Program (IECMHC), and what will you do to invest in the well-being of our children?

Michele Lundgren said mental health seems to be an area of health care that gets overlooked for children. 

"Resources aren’t necessarily the only thing you can throw at situations like this. Perhaps any kind of school, community centers, doctors offices, any kind of referral situations that you can use," she said. "Oftentimes, it's not available in certain areas, maybe in the country, but in the city where I live and represent the 9th district, I would probably want to make sure that referrals were available in the couple of schools we have here. Referrals should be available everywhere."

She said everyone should have options and those should be regulated in price. "Psychological help, and psychiatric help tends to be kind of expensive. You have to make sure that everybody is being taken care of on all levels," she said. "It all has to be a family and a community type of interaction. If I get to Lansing, I’ll make sure we have something available for mental health."

Rep. Weiss said she's less familiar with the infant and early childhood health screenings, but in terms of pre-K to 12th grade, she's been working hard to provide mental health services to kids. This involves recruiting mental health workers, psychologists, and counselors to help fill the many roles needed across the state. 

"I am currently working on researching and working on legislation to expand early childhood autism services as well, " she said, "looking at what some of the other states are doing, like California, some of the services they’re providing compared to what we’re doing in Michigan. I’m happy to expand that to look beyond autism spectrum disorder and look more broadly at other mental health issues as well."

Charles Villerot agrees that mental is an important issue he'll support with funding. 

"The mental health issues, if they can be identified and helped to be solved—you’re not going to solve all of them—but that goes all the way through homelessness, and in particular, as we saw as police officers, you saw, how many people you locked up there are strong mental health issues," he said. "And you wish you didn’t have to lock them up, but for what they did, they had to get locked up, but they still need the mental health work. I’m in agreement with funding all of that," he said, "because that’s going to help all of us as a society."

Mike McFall said that working to fix our broken mental health system in Michigan is one of the top priorities he's been campaigning on.

"We’re using our police department and judiciary to handle our mental health care crisis right now," he said, "which is what we should not be doing, because oftentimes people end up in worse situations...they may be charged with something, and now they're in the system, and now their problems are a lot worse. I’m in favor though, of not just helping people when they’re in times of crisis, but preventive care should always be available."

He said throwing money at the problem won't help until we also destigmatize mental health care so people are willing to seek it out. The approach has to be "multi-faceted" so people don't get labeled, and don’t feel embarrassed to talk about their mental health issues.

Councilwoman Price said she recognizes that mental heal is health care and, with many of her family members working in the field, she respects providers and the challenges they face. She's open to whatever can help expand access to mental health supports and encourage and more providers to embrace the field.

"As a parent of two kids who went through COVID-19, and now have mental health needs, as all of their peers do, it is very challenging to find the kinds of evaluations and supports they need access to because there’s just not enough supply to meet the demand. So, whatever we can do to help expand the early interventions, the consultations, and the access to ongoing preventive care, I’m in full support of." 

Rob Nobel said there are a lot of things that need to happen here.

"I agree with destigmatizing, but I also think that parents are in denial a lot about their kids' actions," he said. "They ignore it when they shouldn’t, and if they do realize it, I think there’s a financial aspect to it, especially after 'Obama Care' with the high deductibles that get a cheap premium, they just can’t afford it. One thing we need to do is work with the national insurers to waive deductibles on any mental health care, and take the financial aspect out of it. 

He refers to House bill 6292, introduced in 2020 by Rep. Shane Hernandez R-Port Huron that 
authorized taxpayer-funded grants of up to $150,000 each to “recovery community organizations” that “support the costs of counselors, therapeutic staff, and recovery coaching staff at high schools” in response to drug abuse by students.  

" We need to look and see if we can expand something like that and put it into the mental health area and help the younger children," he said, "Cut it off in the beginning and it's just going to help us in the end."

Check out the rest of this series to learn how these candidates responded to more questions from parents around early child care and education. This community conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

This entry is part of our Early Education Matters series, exploring the state of early education and childhood care in our region. Through the generous support of the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (SEMI ECFC), we'll be reporting on what parents and providers are experiencing right now, what’s working and what’s not, and who is uncovering solutions.
 

Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller