NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — During the budget meeting with the governor’s team, the head of the Tennessee Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said she would like to see a school-based behavioral health liaison in every school in the state.

“Similar to what we’ve done with the SROs,” Commissioner Marie Willaims said. “In order to be healthy, in order to be resilient, and in order to succeed, you got to take care of your mental health”

Williams said they currently have behavioral health liaisons in 333 out of 1,900 schools, and her team has seen improvements in student performance.

“We’ve seen reduced truancy. We’ve seen reduced discipline rates, and we’ve seen increase in participation in the school. Absolutely, we’ve seen that it works,” Williams said.

The department has spent $28 million in state and federal funds to bring this initiative to current levels and would need about $120 million to fully fund it, but for this upcoming state budget, the Williams is only asking for $8 million to add 114 more liaisons. She said that alone will help 24,000 more students get access to mental health services.

Williams is making this pitch at a moment when Tennessee’s youth are in increasing need of mental health services.

“We have seen an increase – not due to anything anybody’s done or not done – but an increase in actual kids struggling with anxiety, depression, substance use, which is why we need more funds to serve that number that’s grown,” she said.

According to the 2023 State of Mental Health in America report, Tennessee is in the bottom 10 among all states when it comes to youth mental health and mental health care access. The report also found about one-in-six Tennessee kids have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

“We have 61,000 kids up to the age of 18 that are struggling with substance use disorder across the state…when you look at kids that are struggling with severe emotional disturbance, we’re looking at a total of about 96,000,” Williams said.

When asked how these liaisons will differ from school guidance counselors, Williams explained they will have a more specific and defined role focused on kids struggling with emotional disturbance.

After the budget hearing, Gov. Bill Lee expressed an openness to putting more funds towards this initiative, but wanted to learn more about its effectiveness.

“It’s certainly something that I’m very interested in,” Lee said. “We know that the mental health challenges that our children have faced, a lot of the issues resulting from the pandemic, but other reasons as well. Those are important for us to address and we do that in school oftentimes, so I’m very interested in that. We’ll look and see if it fits the budget.”