Spotlight Exclusives

Inseparable Looks to States as Laboratories for Mental Health Progress

Bill Smith Bill Smith, posted on

The mental health awareness organization, Inseparable, has made a major push in recent months to support bipartisan policy solutions at the state level. Focusing on the organization’s three pillars of crisis response, youth mental health, and the treatment gap, Inseparable has worked with individual states as well as the National Governors Association and the National  Conference of State Legislators. Inseparable was founded by Bill Smith, a former political operative who worked with GOP consultant and former White House (George W. Bush) Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove before working in the marriage equality movement and helping found Civitas Public Affairs Group. Smith founded Inseparable after his own family’s experience with mental health struggles. Smith spoke recently to Spotlight; the transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

It’s been some time since we caught up with the latest on Inseparable—what’s the latest?

Things have been going really well. Our big thing for this year was to really try to put a marker down on school and youth mental health. And so, in February we published a school mental health report card for every state to show where they are, and then have policy recommendations to put in place. That was, frankly, a monumental undertaking to pull all of that together. But our theory was, let’s put a report card out there to help bring folks and policy makers to the table, and then let’s go deep in a few places and see what kind of progress we could make and figure out then what can we learn to really scale that.

We knew that we needed both federal guidance and federal money, but the real action on school mental health happens at the state and local level. And so, we put the report card out and then we went deep in about five states and hired lobbyists, ran campaigns, the whole shebang. Happily, we can report that we were able to help pass five new pieces of legislation. In Alabama, a bill was passed that requires a mental health services coordinator in every school system. In Illinois, we helped pass a bill that requires annual wellness checks for high school students. In Delaware, we supported the passing of three different bills: one that required health insurance to cover the wellness checks and to institute those; another that would require mental health education to be part of the school curriculum; and then a third that would require the hiring of more middle school psychologists. Our theory was, we’ve got to be able to do this in red states and blue states, big states and small states.

We were also very involved in the Safer Communities Act that came out of the tragedy in Uvalde, Tex. We had our lobby team go really deep because we knew from previous conversations that we’d had with folks like Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), that like we had a real opportunity to move the ball forward on youth mental health in a bipartisan way. We pushed them really hard to plus up some programs and ended up getting a $1.5 billion for youth mental health put in the package there. So, we were thrilled with that.

We’re working with the National Governors Association since (N.J.) Gov. Phil Murphy just took over and he’s going to be making youth mental health a big focus next year. At the beginning of August, we went to the National Conference of State Legislators and just had a fantastic reception. It was very clear that people across the country, on both sides of the aisle, really want to do something on youth mental health. We offered them some guidance on how to do it legislatively and we’re getting ready to launch a bipartisan state legislative caucus with legislators from around the country who care about this.

Are you planning to do another report card next year?

We’re working on how often it needs to be updated. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in states across the country. We are also going to be putting out a similar report card later this fall around crisis response as one of Inseparable’s core areas of crisis response, youth mental health, and the treatment gap. On the crisis response front, 988 going live this summer was a positive step forward, but we need more resources, programs, and trained professionals to really build a full crisis response system. We’ve been focusing the conversation on how to really build a fully equipped crisis response system, but we’re still worried about it because the system’s not fully ready for it. The conversation has really been around the three-digit number, not around the full crisis response system.

For the crisis response report card, we plan to present a 50-state roadmap on crisis response similar to the school mental health report card. We need to paint a picture of where we are and where we need to go on crisis . And also, youth crisis in particular we think is not well served right now because people talk about crisis and, you know, youth are not just small adults. They’ve got separate needs and complexities.

And would you pick five states to work in on the crisis response piece as well?

That’s our hope and we have a few states that we’re talking to that are doing good things on crisis and youth already. I would love for us to be able to be in 15 states a year across all three areas of work. Once you get a center of gravity and you’ve invested the resources into being able to do multi-state work well, it’s really the same capacities and tactics that you can deploy across all of those policy areas. As a new nonprofit, we’re trying to figure out what’s the scale we can get to financially over the next six months that would really allow us to take advantage next year and win in a lot of places at once.

And then is the state work more under the Hopeful Futures banner than Inseparable?

Hopeful Futures is really around the school work. There’s so much complexity there that we wanted the brand of a unified campaign and we’re up to 19 organizations that are now working together as part of the Hopeful Futures Campaign.

Have the things you have been able to get done on the state level largely bipartisan?

Yes. In Alabama, it was a Republican-led House, Senate, and governor that put a to put a mental health services coordinator in every school system. Republicans support kids’ mental health too and we were  thrilled with this win. In Alabama, the reddest state imaginable, the affluent school systems already have a coordinator, but this really was a huge equity play where school districts like Selma are now going to have the same services.  We’re focused on truly approaching this in a bipartisan way, it’s why our legislative caucus has two Republican leaders and two Democratic leaders.

And are there lessons you have learned on that score—effective ways of messaging family policy issues to attract support on the right?

One crucial thing is to have parents front and center. We start by saying every parent wants their kid to be healthy, happy, and safe, and to have a chance for a hopeful future. And just by bringing parents in with a very simple sentence like that, it kind of gets the hackles down a little bit at a time when there’s a pretty massive, messy debate about what’s taught in schools right now.

The other big learning is how to approach discussing the developing of self-awareness and interpersonal skills in our kids. Every parent I talk to supports these skills and especially recognize the next generation will need soft skills in the workforce. We’re also researching different messaging tactics that help get the idea of fairness equity, which is really making sure that every kid has access to the same resources and support, regardless of where they live, and across the political divide.

Do you still find that the pandemic has a big impact on the issue and is opening the eyes of many people to issues that already existed, but maybe they had not seen as vividly in their world?

Yes. One bright spot has been in some data around young Black boys who’ve been able to access culturally competent providers in school settings via telehealth, something that wasn’t widespread before the pandemic. That sort of thing has been really exciting to see. And the conversation has propelled that in a good way. A lot of people are focused on schools right now, specifically on the lost learning and mask policies but we need to also keep the focus on the importance of mental health because so many children have been negatively impacted.  And teachers tell us that problems in the classroom are often connected to mental health. So, what we try to do is bridge those gaps. It’s important to remember that we have been on a bad trajectory with the youth risk behavioral survey and youth mental health for a while. So, I think that means that we have an ongoing opportunity and obligation to talk about it.




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