EV lawmaker makes impassioned plea for kids’ mental health

State Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, implored the House Education Committee to approve the first of three bills he has submitted to improve state and local response to the worsening teen mental crisis in Arizona. (Arizona Legislature)

As he appeared Feb. 14 before the state House Education Committee, state Rep. Travis Grantham bluntly told members that he wasn’t happy last year when he was assigned to the task force on teen mental health that had brought him before them.

“In the last session, I was asked to serve on an ad hoc committee dealing with teen mental health,” the Gilbert Republican told his colleagues. “And to be honest with you, I didn’t want to. But once I got on the committee and I understood how important of an issue this is, I changed my mind.”

Grantham had been appointed with then-state Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, to co-chair a committee that would “take a substantive look into the issues and causes affecting teen mental health, including substance abuse, depression, and suicide, and to identify potential solutions and improvements.”

From September through November, that panel – comprising police, school officials and various medical experts – heard at times gut-wrenching testimony about the rising incidents of drug overdoses, substance abuse, suicides and attempted suicides among teenagers in Arizona.

That panel produced 23 recommendations and Grantham in the committee’s first meeting warned members and the audience they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Grantham warned the panel and people in the audience against unrealistic hopes for the committee’s work.

“There was an understanding that while mental health can be addressed and can be changed and for the better,” he said, “it’s like steering a ship: you turn the wheel and over time, the ship slowly starts to move, hopefully, in the right direction. It’s not an overnight fix.”

And though he echoed those cautionary remarks in the task force’s final meeting in December, he appeared before the House committee last week as a crusader.

“I heard stories that quite honestly made me want to cry and formed a new appreciation for the folks who are the professionals in this industry who work so hard to try to solve these problems and the people who deal with this on a day to day basis,” he said.

A tragedy also struck closer to home for Grantham.

A female sophomore at a Gilbert private school died by suicide only a day earlier.

“We had an incident in my own district just a couple days ago where a young woman (died by) suicide and it set the school in a crisis mode,” Grantham told the committee.

“And I’m sure it’s affected a lot of her friends and the people who knew her. And every time a student or a young person does that, we lose tremendously and it’s devastating,” he said.

“I can’t tell you that this legislation will change the social aspect of the family or whatever might be weighing on these people that are choosing to go down this road or having mental health issues, but at least it provides the opportunity for help to be there at the push of a button.”

The legislation he was referring to was the first – and probably easiest – of three bills he has filed to help push Arizona into a more proactive response to a crisis that has been aggravated by pandemic school closures, social media, bullying and other peer pressures.

He won when the committee voted to send to the House a measure that would allow school districts to develop or buy an app that would enable students to anonymously report safety issues ranging from self-harm to threats against students and receive anonymous clinical support 24/7.

The app also would provide students and parents with resources on mental health, bullying and substance abuse issues. It does not require districts to provide such an app but rather clears any administrative hurdles that might be preventing one from being offered, Grantham stressed.

Grantham’s other bills would create a teen mental health program within the state Department of Health Services and provide a so-far unspecified amount of money to fund its operation.

Such a program – which Osborne suggested could be funded with some of the $14 million Arizona will receive from the settlement of its lawsuit against Juul for a marketing campaign that led millions of children and teen into vaping addictions – could help pay for school district programs like the app.

Grantham’s bill would empower DHS to also pay school districts and nonprofits for training on mental health first aid, youth resiliency and substance abuse for staff, parents and peers.

It also would require the Health Services Department to make an annual report on projects it funded and the outcomes it achieved.

Grantham’s appearance also comes on the heels of a Chandler Unified School District report that disclosed 395 district students had considered suicide since July – and those are just the ones that officials know about.

Before the House committee took its unanimous vote, Osborne also addressed the crisis, noting that Grantham, a major in the Arizona Air National Guard, knows all too well about the “horrendous” suicide rate among military veterans in the United States. The Guard uses the app the committee voted on to the full House.

She then cited a new report by the Centers of Disease Control last week that said 57% of adolescent girls “feel persistently sad or hopeless.”

“That’s the highest rate in a decade and 30% said they have seriously considered dying by suicide, a percentage that has risen by nearly 60% over the past 10 years,” Osborne said.

“We have a crisis. It’s not an answer from one bill. It’s not an answer from one organization or one group or one teacher. It’s all of us. As parents, it’s our churches. It’s our schools. It’s our communities. We’ve got to recognize this because our kids don’t have five years for us to wake up as adults and say we got a problem here.

“It’s at our doorstep right now. And it’s affecting every one of our districts. There is no social, economic or whatever to it. Kids are having trouble.”

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