Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The state Senate endorsed an omnibus plan Friday to bolster mental health services for Connecticut children in effort to strengthen a support system exposed as inadequate to handle the additional strains of the pandemic.

The Senate approved the bill on a 33 to 1 vote following statements of support from lawmakers of both parties. Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Southington, cast the only vote in opposition. 

Shortfalls in the behavioral health system emerged as early a legislative priority after public hearings exposed existing deficiencies that had been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers heard stories of children struggling with mental health crises turning to emergency departments as treatment programs around the state reported long waiting lists. 

“To the children, know that your power that you have and the love that people in our state have for you is significant,” Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said Friday. “Every single person with all different perspectives, views and people who passionately disagree on different things agree on showing their love to you.”

One expensive provision in the original bill, a more than $200 million plan to increase pay rates for child care providers, was removed and added to a separate bill, according to Senate Democrats.

However, the bill passed Friday dedicates around $25 million to various behavioral health efforts that will be paid for using both state and federal relief funds. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The legislation contained a long list of provisions including $3 million in funding for expanding mobile crisis services, a grant fund within the Children and Families Department to help families pay for behavioral health treatment. It requires the Education Department to create mental health plans for young athletes, requires UConn to study the impact of social media on mental health, and dedicates $5 million to boost payments to Birth to Three providers. 

The bill allows peditirains to use grant funds to offset the costs of hiring social workers, requires the Public Health Department to launch new efforts to recruit and maintain behavioral health professionals, and hikes funding to the Youth Service Bureaus by $2 million. 

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said the bill had support and ideas of all four legislative caucuses. 

“I believe everybody can recognize that the past two years under COVID have been very difficult but where we see it really exacerbated is the area of mental health,” Kelly said. “We’re experiencing a bandwidth issue, access points as well as funding.”

Senate President Martin Looney said he expected the bill would be one of the major achievements of this year’s session, in part due to the participation of members of both parties.

“This bill has to be one of the rallying points for the whole session and a point of emphasis for us because it is not only an important matter of policy but it is time-sensitive,” Looney said. “We really and truly are in a crisis that needs to be addressed right now with much greater resources than we have brought to bear previously.”

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.