The pervasiveness of mental health issues and child suicide rates leads Oregon to rank as the worst state in the country for the prevalence of mental illness.

And the state's lack of child psychiatrists and school counselors leaves families waiting for months to get help.

Locally, multiple teen suicides have affected both Salem-Keizer Public Schools and the Jefferson School District this year.

Oregon lawmakers want to help with a proposed bill requiring every student in grades 6 through 12 to undergo a mental health wellness check once every school year.

Under Legislative Concept 2890, every school district and public charter school in the state would be required to participate.

Wellness checks would use "an evidence-based, accessible screening tool" to identify a student’s existing, or risk of, mental health issues.

The proposed bill does not specify who — other than a trained professional — would be conducting the screenings, who would be pay for the service and what the estimated costs would be. 

It also does not specify when the evaluations would need to be completed or how the collected information would be used, other than the information would be "evaluated by a qualified counselor or mental health professional."

A parent or adult student would be able to excuse a student from undergoing a wellness check by completing a form and submitting it to the school.

Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, introduced the legislative concept to the Oregon House Interim Committee on Health Care on Wednesday. It was then adopted as a committee bill.

Nosse didn't respond to questions from the Statesman Journal Thursday.

Mental health in Oregon schools

Severe depression and anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are some of the increasingly prevalent and least-understood mental health disorders among K-12 students.

About one in five — 20 percent — youth nationwide are affected by some type of mental disorder to such an extent they have difficulty functioning, according to the latest data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools' rate is even higher — closer to one in four of the district's 42,000 students. 

Dealing with these conditions can significantly reduce students' odds of completing their education, increase their likelihood of ending up unemployed and adding long-term financial impact on the communities where they live.

More subtle effects are felt, too, such as the persistent stigma associated with asking for help with mental health.

Over the last two years, Salem-Keizer has partnered with Marion and Polk counties and Trillium Family Services, one of the largest mental and behavioral health care providers for families in Oregon, to fill part of the gap in services and lower the waiting time for families in several schools. 

School psychologist Chris Moore said the first step is awareness. After that, educators really want to know what they can do to better understand the issues and help students experiencing trauma.

"The priority for a kid is to feel safe in school," Moore said in a previous interview. "This is about the mental health of our country and whether people feel a sense of belonging to their community."

Health, ed in 2019 legislative session

With the governor's 2012-22 budget, the work of the Joint Committee on Student Success and myriad other efforts, it appears Oregon legislators are prioritizing education and health care in the upcoming legislative session.

Gov. Kate Brown unveiled her priorities for the next two years in a budget proposal in November, which included an additional $1.9 billion for education and a cigarette tax to increase and potentially stabilize funding for the Oregon Health Plan.

Meanwhile, joint committee members want to create an entirely separate funding formula specifically for school physical and mental health and wraparound services, according to preliminary policy recommendations made last month.

Other legislative concepts related to mental health and education were discussed this week during Legislative Committee Days. The 2019 Legislative Session officially begins Jan. 22.

For more information, go to www.oregonlegislature.gov/

Contact reporter Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745 or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.