tammy exum
Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, speaks during a Monday press conference. Courtesy of Exum’s Facebook page.

As more children seek professional help for anxiety and other mental health issues, Connecticut is taking a comprehensive look at gaps in services around the state.

The new Transforming Children’s Behavioral Health Policy Committee met for the first time Monday. The panel includes lawmakers, Executive Branch agency officials and medical experts who will take a look at how behavioral health providers are currently treating children.

“Issues that are this complicated, that require funding, are solved in the hard work of the off-session,” House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building prior to the meeting.

The panel is modeled after the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee or JJPOC. That committee — also a collection of lawmakers and experts — meets monthly to review juvenile justice policies in Connecticut and around the country before recommending changes.

Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, one of three chairs of the new behavioral health committee, said she has the same goal for this new panel.

“We want to look at what is happening in Connecticut, what is happening across the country, having the opportunity to compare why, what, when,” she said.

The other committee chairs include Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, and Claudio Gaultieri, a policy advisor on health and human services for the Office of Policy and Management.

Exum said members have shortened their committee’s acronym to TCB, also short for “Taking Care of Business.”

The committee will meet monthly starting in September, although members have not yet finalized the schedule.

The panel was included in legislation approved in 2022 but couldn’t get the funding needed to get off the ground for more than a year. The group will receive staffing support from the University of New Haven and the University of Connecticut.

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said she and others had to push for the committee to get started this summer.

“When we put [the legislation] together, we said specifically ‘we’re not just going to throw money at this,’” she said. “We are going to make sure every dollar that we’ve committed to this is doing exactly what we need it to do.”

Monday’s meeting was simply an introduction for members, but the group plans to meet monthly starting in September. 

Its work begins as public health experts continue to sound alarms around children’s behavioral health and the lack of available services.

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 15% percent of children were treated for a mental health disorder in 2021.

Meanwhile, a study published in June by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the share of outpatient visits that included a mental health diagnosis rose from 2016 through 2018. The portion of visits that included therapy, however, fell during the same time period.

“The pandemic may be over, but the children’s mental health crisis is not,” Exum said.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes and Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani highlighted some of the policy changes in Connecticut aimed at providing more services.

Those include expanding the availability of mobile crisis units around the state, expanding pediatricians’ access to behavioral health consultants and the creation of a new urban trauma initiative meant to help children deal with trauma resulting from racism.

The state will also soon have four urgent crisis centers, meant to offer children an alternative to the emergency room when they have a behavioral health crisis. The centers will be in Waterbury, Hartford, New Haven, and New London. 

“This cuts across all corners of Connecticut,” Dorantes said.

The state has also expanded compacts and agreements with other states to give service providers reciprocity.

Nuccio said this has expanded the availability of telehealth services, but the state hasn’t seen a real increase in professionals based in Connecticut.

“Actually having providers here on the ground and taking new clients is more of a primary goal of mine,” she said.